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NM commissioners debate salary increase

It takes 160 hours of training per year for one detention center officer

By Alisa Boswell
The Portales News-Tribune

PORTALES, N.M. Roosevelt County commissioners on Tuesday tabled a request for detention-center pay raises despite concerns expressed by numerous county officials.

County Manager Amber Hamilton and Roosevelt County Detention Center Administrator Mark Gallegos informed commissioners that as of Sunday, Curry County will increase its starting pay for detention officers from $12.50 an hour to $13.82 an hour to curb the problem it is having with retention.

“We’ve been consistently paying less than Curry County,” Hamilton said, adding that Roosevelt County pays a starting salary of $11.13 per hour for detention officers.

Hamilton said later a proposal of five step increases was presented to increase the beginning salary for a detention officer to $12.60 per hour.

“We want to increase salary to be competitive, so we don’t end up in the same position as before where we are short-staffed,” Hamilton said.

County Finance Manager Becky White said Curry County put the pay increase into effect to “stop the bleeding” of employees.

Sandra Stewart confirmed Tuesday that the Curry County Detention Center had 23 officer vacancies as of last week.

Stewart said staffing issues at the Curry County facility have been going on for a long time, and there are usually a number of factors that can contribute to that.

“When you have a series of administrators and none of them stay long, that’s very hard on a facility,” Stewart said. “Over the years, there’s also been some bad press and groups who weren’t always supportive of the detention center, and I believe those could have contributed to it as well.”

“I can’t tell you what all the causes are, but I can tell you sometimes offering a pay increase helps,” Stewart added, saying the county has also lowered the hiring age from 21 to 18 to help curb the problem and is looking into utilizing temporary employees.

“We are trying to approach it from every conceivable outlook to make it a better place to work, and the pay is just one of those tools,” Stewart said.

Roosevelt County Commissioner Shane Lee on Tuesday said Roosevelt County does not have the resources to match Curry’s pay rate.

Hamilton and Gallegos agreed but said they need to increase the base salary somewhat to be competitive, because a high volume of officers will leave to go to Curry County if there is more money offered.

Gallegos told commissioners he took a survey at RCDC, asking officers if they would leave if Curry County made the increase, but Roosevelt County did not offer an increase.

He said about eight officers said yes, so the county could be looking at an eight to 10 officer loss if they do not make their salary more competitive.

“I’m just going to be straightforward with you,” Gallegos told commissioners. “What Curry County is doing is going to have a huge impact.”

Commissioner Jake Lopez said the detention center industry is always going to be competitive, and the county does not know for sure what the impacts of Curry County’s pay increase will be.

“No, we don’t,” said Hamilton. “We can only anticipate. If we don’t (give a pay increase, we are anticipating losing anywhere from eight to 10 (officers). If we do, we are anticipating (losing) three to four.”

Commissioners asked Gallegos and Hamilton if they could look into other options.

Gallegos said if they lose a large amount of staff and can’t get new officers in, the only other option to run a safe facility would be to pay other counties to house their inmates.

Losing employees also means losing money spent training, County Attorney Randy Knudson and White pointed out.

“The thing I would remind the commission is you trained people, then you will lose them, then you have the expense of training new staff,” Knudson said.

White said it takes 160 hours of training per year for one detention center officer, which Hamilton said adds up to several thousand dollars per officer.

White also pointed out that the retention rate for the detention center has improved drastically in the last six months, and this could change that.

“And the more vacancies we have, the longer it will take to fill them,” White said, saying that officers are more hesitant to come work in an understaffed environment.

Road Superintendent Ricky Lovato joined the conversation to say he meant no disrespect to Gallegos, but a pay raise for detention center staff could cause turmoil in other departments, because morale has already been low due to no one else being allowed pay increases.

“It’s been difficult as it is,” Lovato said. “It’s going to get ugly.”

Hamilton told commissioners that she and other county officials have tossed around the idea of combining detention facilities in eastern New Mexico to better accommodate the continuous problems that come with the field, but until something like that comes to fruition, she said, “it’s going to be a tough road.”

Stewart said although Clovis and Portales are only 25 miles apart, combining any detention center facilities would be difficult to do due to the separate facilities being under different jurisdiction.

“If there were ever to be a combined facility, the county commissioners would have to make that decision and agree on it. But I can tell you that is kind of complicated, because you have two governmental entities,” Stewart said.

She said her understanding from Curry County officials is that the county has approached other counties about combining facilities before and was unsuccessful.

Copyright 2015 The Portales News-Tribune