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Commissioners Court OKs small pay hikes for law enforcement

Monday, September 9, 2019 by Jack Craver

After approving raises for the county’s civilian workforce, the Travis County Commissioners Court wants to boost pay for the region’s 1,300 sheriff’s deputies, park rangers, jail guards and constable officers. However, members of the court are opting for a more modest pay raise than that sought by unions representing sheriff’s deputies.

At a Thursday budget meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to stick with what county staff included in the proposed budget: funding a step increase for all employees on the Peace Officer Pay Scale, which would result in a 2 percent pay hike for all but the most senior employees (some of whom cannot advance any more steps). That will cost about $1.8 million next year.

The unions had recommended an across-the-board 3 percent pay raise for everyone on the pay scale, which would cost nearly twice as much – about $3.5 million.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt also toyed with the idea of giving all workers the same flat-dollar pay raise, meaning those at the bottom of the pay scale would get a bigger percentage raise than those at the top. A $1,600 hike, which would be a 3 percent boost for those at the bottom, would cost about $2 million.

Eckhardt said flat-dollar raises could be a way for the county to gradually correct what she views as a “top-heavy” pay scale. In the coming years she would like to see a bigger proportion of law enforcement pay go to those on the lower salary rungs.

County budget staff similarly expressed concerns that the county’s entry-level law enforcement officers may soon be making below-market wages if they don’t get a pay raise.

“I don’t think that’s a position we really want to be in if we can avoid it,” said Todd Osburn, the county’s compensation manager.

Unfortunately, said Eckhardt, there isn’t enough time left to fully vet the flat-dollar pay raise. The court must approve the Fiscal Year 2019-20 budget by the end of the month. Commissioners similarly cited time constraints in their rejection of the unions’ proposed 3 percent pay hike.

“You do not do this at the end of August,” said Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. “There’s all of this massive time to have done this.”

However, Eckhardt suggested the court could set aside funds in reserve and then figure out how to allocate them at some point next year.

Last month, the court voted to approve at least 3 percent pay raises for all civilian county workers. Pay raises of various levels were recommended for about 38 percent of the workforce as a result of a market salary survey conducted by the human resources department, while employees at the lowest end of the pay scale were all brought up to at least $15 an hour. All others got a 3 percent hike.

In an interview with the Austin Monitor, Eckhardt said that county law enforcement has generally made significantly above-market wages, while its civilian workers have been closer to the market median. That inequity, she said, is the result of “decisions made years ago” by previous county leaders.

Casting a shadow over the compensation conversation and the budget as a whole are the new property tax revenue restrictions that will go into effect next year.

On the other hand, the fact that the jail population has declined in recent years has allowed the county to reduce its jail workforce by 18 positions. The funding associated with those positions is currently being held in a special reserve fund, available to be allocated if the county needs to hire more jail employees in the future.

Photo by Texas Military Department made available through a Creative Commons license.

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