Commissioners and the community soon could face a moment of truth with regard to the budget and how much revenue it takes to operate a county of more than 200,000 residents.
On Tuesday, Sheriff Larry Smith asked county commissioners to add positions, vehicles, equipment to his initial budget request. Total staff requests likely would top $2 million once benefits are paid. Smith requested more money to help retain and hire staff, including jailers, as the $35 million, 384-bed jail expansion project nears completion.
Smith asked the court to approve any series of options — more pay for staff, increased benefits, better insurance, stipends, anything — to help him retain employees he said are leaving for other private and public sector employers.
He also requested funding to replace high-mileage vehicles and to pay for better equipment, including bulletproof vests, for deputies.
“I’m just throwing out these ideas that could help me retain employees,” Smith told the court.
The requests were not within Smith’s initial April budget requests submitted to commissioners. There was no line item identifying how much the increased staff, vehicles and equipment purchases and other requests would cost.
Sheriff’s Office employees and community supporters, including Tea Party groups, spilled into the foyer outside the commissioners courtroom to hear the presentation. Several spoke in support of making law enforcement a top priority.
Commissioners had more questions than answers following the presentation. They must weigh the entirety of budget requests and that Smith’s requests for better pay, more staff and more equipment is no different than other departments, such as Road and Bridge, the tax office and District Clerk, multiple commissioners said.
Smith disagreed and said law enforcement officers keep a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year operation working and face dangers in the line of duty.
Commissioners’ top priority going into this budget process has been to add at least $3 million to a $6 million Road and Bridge budget.
Commissioner Jeff Warr said most of the requests were news to him. He wants to see a Sheriff Office operational chart and look at where positions can be maximized within the jail.
As the jail bond was presented, one of the selling points was that the configuration and “direct supervision” method of monitoring inmates would decrease the number of jailers per prisoner.
Smith addressed the court as part of a scheduled budget workshop where department heads and elected officials were asked to defend requests.
Smith said 120 staff members have left since he took office. Exit surveys showed non-competitive pay, retirement benefits, insurance and loss of vacation time as top reasons the employees left.
Smith said the Texas Commission on Jail Standards would require 58 additional jailers to open two floors of the three-floor expansion. The 58 additional jailers would cost more than $1.7 million plus fringe benefits. The base salary for Smith County jailers is $29,363.
The sheriff also asked for more money to make salaries on his staff, including clerks, jailers and detectives, comparable to other similar sized counties.
Law enforcement and the jail system accounts for 40 percent of the county’s $69.7 million in expenditures for 2014.
Smith surveyed 11 counties, from Comal (population 116,000) to Galveston (population 300,500) for a pay comparison and found Smith County’s salary lag was 9 percent to 32 percent below. Jailers make an average of $4,413 less annually. Patrol deputies make $3,329 less. Investigators make $11,991 less. Dispatchers make $5,064 less.
But all those positions were part of the 2007 Salary Compensation Committee recommendations to make countywide position pay scales more competitive. The court approved the recommendations that increased pay for employees and elected officials over a three-year period.
Commissioners court members want to discuss the requests further and look for ways to give Smith the resources he needs but openly stated funding the request likely would require a property tax increase.
Pay and benefit adjustments would mean adjustments for all employees, Commissioner JoAnn Hampton said.
“We have to look at what’s best for the whole county,” she said. “Ask how many of those supporting the Sheriff’s Office would support a tax increase.”
Former Commissioner JoAnn Fleming sidestepped the question when Mrs. Hampton posed it to her following Mrs. Fleming’s address supporting Smith. She said she hasn’t seen enough of the current budget line items to determine whether a property tax increase would be necessary.
After the meeting, Mrs. Fleming, who spoke as a representative of Grassroots America – We the People, continued to drum at the lack of long-term planning by the county. She said there could not be an honest discussion about the cost of running an efficient and effective county government before every department and elected office assesses true needs.
Mrs. Fleming said the property tax levy has increased more than 95 percent since 2003 and 314 percent since 1993 and that poor planning and spending have put the county in a predicament. She said roads and law enforcement are two of the county’s constitutional requirements, and yet both are being neglected.
Mrs. Fleming’s stance befuddled Commissioner Terry Phillips.
Commissioners made tough decisions in 2010, including cutting staff positions and reducing benefits, at the urging of community conservatives, including members of Grassroots America, he said. The sheriff’s personnel request equal around a 2-cent increase to the property tax rate, he said.
Phillips said Grassroots America members know the budget impact of adding positions and increasing salaries and benefits – “It’s huge,” he said.
“I’m one of them,” he said. “We made the tough decisions and now she’s supporting reversing all of that. I’ve pledged to vote against a tax increase and I won’t support one.”
Phillips also noted that commissioners pledged, during the bond proposal, to return any excess revenues from housing federal inmates (which pay a higher per-day rate) toward paying off the bond early. Smith had worked excess revenues into his presentation as a way to pay for some of his requests.
Former Tyler City Manager Ernie Clark was critical of an inter-local agreement, noted in Smith’s presentation, between the county and the city of Whitehouse. Whitehouse cut its five dispatch positions and paid the county $30,000 to take on the call volume without additional staff.
“Y’all got snookered by Whitehouse,” he said.
In a moment of levity, Commissioner Cary Nix said law enforcement are wanted and needed “on the wall,” referencing Jack Nicholson’s impassioned speech in “A Few Good Men,” to which Smith retorted “but he also said, ‘You can’t handle the truth.’” The courtroom erupted in laughter.
Smith said after the meeting that he will work with commissioners but that there are needs now. He needs 13 jailer positions filled soon. And he needs all of his jail staff to be certified by the state to monitor via “direct supervision.”
The training is two-and-a-half weeks long and being understaffed could mean county may not be ready to open the newly renovated downtown jail by November.