Smith County dispatchers to be reimbursed for unused vacation time following split vote

Published on Tuesday, 5 December 2017 17:48 - Written by FAITH HARPER, fharper@tylerpaper.com

Smith County dispatchers will be reimbursed for unused vacation time this year, making them the only group of Smith County employees to be reimbursed for unused time.

On Tuesday, the Smith County Commissioners Court approved the expenditure, which will be between $6,400 and $6,700, depending on when the payment is made, according to County Auditor Ann Wilson. The payment will be made with funds from salary lag - money that is budgeted for salaries but goes unused because of staffing vacancies.

It wasn’t a unanimous decision, passing with three commissioners for and two against the measure. Commissioners Jeff Warr, Terry Phillips and Cary Nix voted in favor while Commissioner JoAnn Hampton and County Judge Nathaniel Moran voted against.

Each member of the court expressed concern over the decision, and that it would spur a barrage of other departments asking to be paid for unused vacation time.

At the county, if vacation time isn’t used, it’s lost. Ms. Wilson said roughly 4,000 hours of time goes unused annually.

“It’s healthy to take breaks from work to get your mind off work and to take extended breaks,” Judge Moran said. “We cannot make this a regular occurrence. We don’t want to do that. If we are going to do that, then we need to change our policy.”

A voting majority of Commissioners Court members, including Moran, said they are not interested in changing the current policy.

Sheriff Larry Smith made the case for the dispatchers before the court on Tuesday.

His request was dialed back from what was on the agenda. He initially requested to also pay any comp time they may have accrued over the year - that secondary request got dropped, and Smith said he’d prefer to address comp time during next year’s budget discussions.

Smith is the elected supervisor over dispatch, but the Commissioners Court has statutory power to make the budget and approve any amendments to it.

Smith said dispatch is perpetually understaffed. At full capacity, there are 23 dispatchers, but for most of the year there have been eight openings.

It takes time and training before a new dispatcher can be on the floor, and Smith argued the senior members of the team come in on their days off help train new recruits.

That, he said, is a main contributor to them not taking vacation time.

“This is part of the employment group we can’t do without,” the sheriff told commissioners. “I don’t want to take the chance of losing more by not paying them vacation time.”

Commissioner Phillips said his concern was on liabilities if the employees were told they couldn’t take the time.

“If it’s a situation where the supervisor tells them they can’t take it, that puts the county at risk,” he said adding the situation was hard to reconcile.

Commissioner Hampton said the county has a comp time committee, which aims to reduce the amount of money paid in overtime and comp time. Ms. Hampton said Smith has declined to participate in committee.

“I feel like the sheriff works hard to keep it down, but I think the committee did a better job to sit down and talk about it,” she said.

Smith said he was willing to work with that committee, but he was not willing to compromise when it came to hours accrued investigating crimes that take a lot of staff time. 

“I’m 100 percent willing to work on a committee, but I’m not going to agree to go back to sending people home that need to work on a homicide case,” he said.

In other business at Tuesday's meeting, commissioners:

- Accepted $34,733 from Oncor to fund repairs to County Road 427. County Engineer Frank Davis said the company built a new substation on U.S. Highway 69, and the county road was used as a temporary entrance for construction trucks. It was damaged along the way, and the energy company agreed to fund the repairs.

- Approved offering Quintero Pitts the position of fleet manager. Commissioners approved offering him the job following executive session.

- Approved increasing the contract for inmate medical services with Correct Care Solution by 1.6 percent.

- Accepted an annual grant on the behalf of the Smith County Fire Marshal’s Office to help with emergency management and planning.

- Approved Commissioner Hampton for a two-year term on the City of Tyler Reinvestment Zone No. 1 committee.

- Agreed to take off a yearslong weekly agenda item regarding the progress of the jail. The item was initially placed on the agenda while the new jail was being built and stayed on as the county made repairs to the older facilities. The item will still come up periodically as part of the county engineer reports, according to the court.

Twitter: @TMTFaith