Mack Humphreys’ impression is that Smith County Sheriff’s Office personnel lag on the priority scale when it comes to pay and other incentives designed to attract and maintain deputies, jailers and dispatchers.
Sheriff Larry Smith’s presentation Friday afternoon at Grassroots America – We the People meeting reinforced that impression, he said.
Smith presented a version of his amended 2015 budget requests to more than 60 attendees of the local conservative watchdog group known for dissecting taxing entity budgets and expressing strong opinions about how taxpayer dollars should be spent.
The sheriff requested 58 more positions to staff the jail expansion planned to open in November, pay and benefit increases for staff and other incentives he said will help him stem the rotating door of employees his office trains and then loses to other agencies around the state, region and even inside Smith County.
Humphreys said he personally knows a Whitehouse police officer who left the sheriff’s office for a better opportunity to provide for his wife and children. He said Smith should have the funding to hire and retain the best law enforcement personnel possible if public safety is a priority for the commissioners court and the public.
“It’s not the sheriff’s needs (the requests), it’s the peoples’ needs,” he said. “If you have a problem at your home, don’t you want to know well-trained, well-equipped deputies would arrive sooner than later?”
Smith estimates additional personnel and pay increases would cost $2.1 million above what he proposed to the county’s chief budget officer County Judge Joel Baker in late April.
Baker disputes the dollar amount and said the sheriff’s additional requests would cost much more and would require a property tax increase within his nearly completed budget. A proposed budget is due from Baker for presentation and consideration by county commissioners by July 31.
Smith said he doesn’t expect to get everything he requested at once, but that commissioners should begin addressing the turnover of his staff. He estimates costs $1 million to $2 million annually to hire and train new personnel to replace employees who leave.
He also said he doesn’t want to be the single official blamed for not being able to adequately staff the jail expansion when it opens.
According to Smith, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards would require 58 jailers to staff two levels of the expansion, which would hold 266 inmates. As of Tuesday, there were 19 inmates housed outside Smith County.
“My fear is that when this new jail opens, we won’t have the personnel hired and trained to meet the number of people District Court and County Court at Law judges will want to put in jail,” he said. “I don’t want to be the culprit when I have beds but no personnel to house prisoners in Smith County.”
Grassroots America Executive Director JoAnn Fleming said the county can’t afford for that scenario to play out. She said law enforcement is a “basic, core” government service and that Smith’s requests should be a priority for the court.
Mrs. Fleming said it is unrealistic to expect the court to address them within the 2015 budget. She said she could not comment on whether Grassroots America would consider supporting a property tax increase to fund Smith’s request without reviewing county prioritizations found within Baker’s working budget, which has not been available to the public.
Commissioners would be expected to keep their March 2011 pledge to put excess revenues generated by housing federal inmates, which pays a higher per day rate, toward the bonded debt, she said.
Smith initially hoped to put excess revenues toward funding his requests but expects court members will stand by their pledge. But he reiterated his requests are “needs not wants” and will be subject to state requirements regarding the jail. As for pay increases and equipment purchases, Smith told the crowd he is “just trying to take care of the people taking care of you.”
Smith said he has meetings scheduled next week with members of the commissioners court, including Baker, and he expects a compromise will emerge.