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Travis County confronts tricky process in reforming pay for law enforcement

Friday, January 17, 2020 by Jack Craver

Travis County leaders are determined to reform the pay scale for the county’s 1,450 public safety employees, but they’re not quite sure how to do it.

The county has long had separate pay scales for civilian employees and law enforcement workers, including sheriff’s deputies, park rangers, corrections officers and constable officers.

Those on the Travis County Peace Officer Pay Scale (POPS) tend to get paid much more than their counterparts at other large law enforcement agencies in Texas, according to an analysis done by the county human resources department in 2018. A similar study of pay for civilian employees of large public sector agencies found Travis County to be right in the middle of the pack.

Both pay scales are based on a step system. Employees move to a new step each time the Commissioners Court funds a step increase. The court typically does so every year, but there have been years when it hasn’t due to budget constraints.

The salary increase between each step varies widely. Currently, the greatest difference in pay between two steps on POPS is 3.83 percent. However, there is no pay difference between steps 14 and 21, meaning that senior employees aren’t getting pay hikes unless the Commissioners Court votes to raise the entire pay scale, which law enforcement unions unsuccessfully urged it to do last year.

An employee who is promoted to another type of position is placed at the same step level for that position as in their former position. For instance, a deputy on step 10 who takes a test to become a detective will be on the 10th step for detectives, therefore making more than others who have been detectives for much longer.

Last year the Commissioners Court instructed the HR department to make the system fairer and more predictable. Among other things, the commissioners hoped to establish a standard pay increase between each step, to provide pay raises after step 14 and to reform the promotion system so that newly promoted employees were not making more than their more senior colleagues in the same position.

The HR department came up with several scenarios, which were presented to the court on Tuesday. Commissioners signaled an interest in an option that would provide a 2.5 percent pay increase between each step and would reduce the total number of steps. When employees are promoted to a different position, they would start at the lowest step for that position.

The proposed system would create its own set of problems, notably by discouraging some employees from seeking promotions. Compensation manager Todd Osburn explained that a senior deputy who is promoted to detective might have to take a pay cut, since the deputy would be starting at the lowest step on the ladder for the new position.

“I don’t think there are going to be a lot of people rushing to promote to take a pay cut,” he said. “So that’s definitely an issue.”

Osburn said there are multiple ways to address the problem, but some of the proposed solutions would create other challenges. The county could simply raise the entry-level pay for detective so that it is better-paid than even senior-level deputy positions, but that would necessitate raising the pay for all detective steps, leading to a major expense at a time when the county is facing serious budget constraints due to state revenue limits.

With the commissioners’ blessing, HR staff agreed to try to come up with a solution that is fiscally responsible and has buy-in from the POPS employees.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt predicted that whatever changes are made will likely take place over the next two budget cycles. She also noted that, because of the new revenue caps, the county may ask voters at some point in the coming years to approve a tax increase to hire more law enforcement or provide pay increases for public safety employees.

Photo courtesy of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.

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