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Texas county raises jail employees’ pay

Those in the county’s “public safety” matrix whose current salary is less than $30,000 will be brought up to that amount

By Brian Bethel
Abilene Reporter-News

ABILENE, Texas — Taylor County Commissioners voted to increase salaries for employees in the jail and a handful of Sheriff’s Office employees Tuesday, effective June 9.

Those in the county’s “public safety” matrix whose current salary is less than $30,000 will be brought up to that amount.

The decision, primarily designed to both attract new employees to the jail and help with retention of those already employed, will draw from unspent salary and — if needed — contingency funds.

“We’re having trouble retaining people because they’re going elsewhere for higher salaries,” said Sheriff Ricky Bishop after the meeting, who said he hoped that the increase would make a difference in both retention and hiring.

The starting salary for a new jailer was $27,000, a recent salary increase over the $25,300 previously paid. Commissioners said Tuesday that $30,250 is the average salary for a jailer in four counties — Tom Green, Lubbock, Brazos and Wichita — comparable to Taylor.

Chief Jail Administrator Terrie Noret told commissioners Tuesday that the jail is down 15 employees, with two set to transfer to the Taylor County Sheriff’s Department. Employees typically work in the jail before taking on patrol duties.

The jail has met a required 1-to-48 inmate ratio, but only through employees working double shifts or taking compensation time, Noret told Commissioners at a previous meeting.

“There are still going to be some people who still don’t want to do it for $30,000, but I think that the employees we do have, we’re going to be able to retain them better,” Bishop said after the salary increase was approved.

If every open position was filled, the increase would cost the county an additional $50,000 this fiscal fear. To retain the raise for fiscal year 2015 will cost $160,000.

But every month the jail has open positions, that budgeted salary is saved back in what is colloquially known as a “bucket” fund, meaning the actual cost to the county is likely to be much less.

“It will not cost near that much this fiscal year because we’ve had so many unfilled positions out there,” Commissioner Stan Egger said. “Much of that savings will be used to fund this.”

Raising salaries is an immediate, if not foolproof, way to perhaps help the situation, he said.

“Salary is important to anyone making a decision to go to work at a job,” Egger said. “And salary determines what kind of harsh environment you’re willing to tolerate, not only for yourself but for your family.”

Bishop said that jail staff tends to leave for a variety of positions, from car dealerships to grocery stores to banks. A few go to work in oil fields, largely out of state.

Jail staff present at the meeting Monday told commissioners about working in dangerous conditions, some worried about possibly not coming home some nights. Many advocated the raise in pay as a way to raise the quality of applicants and increase longevity.

“I call it a substantial amount when you talk about $3,000,” said Lt. Tim Trawick, among those present at the meeting. “That’s $250 a month. That may be a small car payment, a lot more toward day care. But I do believe that we would be able to retain (people), I believe we will get better applicants, and I believe we will hire people that are looking at staying.”

The salary increase does not put to rest the need to raise salaries throughout the county, a concern of commissioner Randy Williams, who voted against the increase.

Williams, who himself has 32 years of experience in law enforcement, said that the nearby French Robertson prison unit starts employees out at $29,200. The prison offers regular raises at certain month intervals throughout an employee’s first year, on top of a $4,000 signing bonus.

Even with those increases, the Robertson unit, too, has had trouble retaining people, Williams said — the prison was recently 70 employees short.

“I can’t see the facts lend themselves to saying that giving $30,000 for a starting salary to jailers will take care of our problem,” he said, noting that commissioners also have a responsibility to all “500-plus county employees.”

Williams worried the increase would bump up pay to levels comparable to some professional positions, which require a college degree and often other certification.

Williams said his greatest fear was that salaries would be raised, “and then next year, we’re right where we were because it wasn’t about salary — but we’ve already made a change.”

“I just don’t see that based on the facts that increasing these salaries (will) have any appreciable effect on the number of people applying for these jobs,” he said.

Changes made to the county’s salary matrix have employees eventually closing the gap with what those in other counties make, he said, though slowly.

“All of our salaries are low, they have been for a long time, and I believe the court is aware of that,” he said. “ Our employees need to make a reasonable salary, but we can’t make that change in a year.”

Egger agreed that the raise for jail employees “doesn’t negate the fact we will continue to try to address salaries and bring those up to what the average is for our comparable counties in (the) budget,” he said.

“And it’s certainly not going to make our budget any easier,” he said.

He said that when the new fiscal year begins, merit increases and unspent salary will allow the department some leeway on making some salary adjustments for experienced employees.

“If we have to, we may get to the point where we’ve got to suspend the work crews and do away with our contract inmates,” he said. “ We’re not going to have the staff to be able to keep them, and if we do keep contract inmates, we’re going to have to house them in other counties — and I don’t know what that’s going to cost us. Midland County is $86 a day.”