Wanted: a new sheriff in town.

That’s the message conveyed by Erie County Democrats on Friday when they issued a call for candidates to run for sheriff this year, even if insiders say Lt. Bert Dunn is emerging as a leading candidate to challenge Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, the Republican incumbent.

“I think Bert is a great candidate,” Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner said. “He has all the characteristics we are looking for in a sheriff and a wide range of skills.”

Still, other names like retired Sheriff’s Sgt. Richard Dobson and Deputy Timothy Higgins also have met with Zellner to discuss the race. And the chairman emphasized that he remains open to other candidates too.

“The citizens and taxpayers of Erie County deserve a sheriff who will put their safety above any political concerns,” Zellner said. “Our community needs new leadership in the Sheriff’s Department.”

Howard, meanwhile, has not yet declared his candidacy for re-election but is expected to run.

According to several sources familiar with the situation, Dunn has pledged to self-finance his candidacy to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars. He is part of the family that runs Bert’s Bikes and Sports.

That could prove a powerful incentive to party leaders, who are expected to concentrate as much of their resources as possible in County Legislature races this year. Democrats there hold a slim 6 to 5 majority over Republicans.