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“They are out there, day and night…”
The last of three budget workshops by La Salle County commissioners on Thursday, November 30, included a request from Sheriff Anthony Zertuche that all of his officers and staff be given a wage adjustment to put them on a par with those in neighboring counties.
If approved in the 2024 budget, the broad salary increase equating to six percent would cost the county an estimated $200,000 more in its salary expenditures, according to the sheriff last week, who described proportionately low salaries to law enforcement officers as a potential drain on qualified employees and an obstacle to hiring new officers.
The sheriff said he believes La Salle County’s neighboring law enforcement agencies are paying their officers at least $54,000 per year – some as high as $61,500 – and that his department falls short of guaranteeing more than $46,000 for a new officer.
The sheriff acknowledged in an earlier statement that a six-percent salary hike would still put La Salle County’s officers at a lower pay scale than other agencies but might dissuade his present staff from decamping to neighboring communities for better-paying jobs.
Zertuche said he hopes commissioners will consider the hike for his officers and administrative staff as well as for the county’s jailers and dispatchers.
“Several agencies in our area show starting salaries for deputies at twenty-one to twenty-nine dollars per hour in addition to stipend pay for officers’ advanced training certificates,” the sheriff said. “I want to start doing that.
“Our staff entry-level pay is approximately $46,000 per year,” Sheriff Zertuche said. “They are out there, day and night, putting their lives on the line, protecting the community. They love their job. They want to keep working here.
“If we don’t match what others pay, we are going to lose dedicated staff,” the sheriff told commissioners, referring more than once to “going sixteen miles up the road,” suggesting that only a short commute lies between the present pay scale in La Salle County and those available in Frio.
“It’s right that we match the pay,” Zertuche said, adding that current officer salaries are “similar to working nine to five, Monday to Friday,” in an office job whose demands are far different from those faced by South Texas law enforcement officers.
“Are you all giving out tickets to bring some revenue in?” Commissioner Noel Niavez asked. The sheriff said his deputies have generated revenues for La Salle County, including $140,000 in citations in Precinct 1 alone between January and November.
“Two hundred thousand dollars is a small price to pay for quality staff,” Zertuche said. “Our officers handle thousands of traffic stops and calls for service. That’s a lot of work.
“They are still bringing in revenue, on top of the calls for service, and pursuits, and emergencies,” the sheriff said of his officers’ work. “If we don’t adjust our salaries to be competitive, I don’t blame my staff one bit for leaving to earn more to feed their families.”
“There is money available,” county finance consultant Jorge Flores told the court. “We have a wage scale. We have a tendency of hiring a replacement at the salary level of the person who left.”
“There’s money there to make the six-percent increase,” the sheriff said.
“If you’re making money and you’re working night and day (…), I make a motion,” Comm. Niavez said.
“It’s a budget workshop,” Atty. Martinez said. “There are no motions. At this point, there is not going to be any more input,” referring to the workshop being the last before commissioners vote on their budget.
“There won’t be an opportunity to change it later,” the sheriff said.
“They can put it in there,” the county attorney said. “It’s up to the court to approve it.”
“I prefer not to do that if there is no consensus,” Flores said of his drafting the budget with court recommendations before December 31. “One commissioner can really destroy this.”
Judge Martinez challenged the sheriff over budget shortfalls in the county, notably in Encinal, where La Salle operates its regional detention center, which houses federal detainees.
“What about the $150,000 deficit that the county’s taking on at the detention center?” Martinez asked.
“I think we both know that neither you nor I have control over the detention center population,” the sheriff said. “It’s not a failure on our part. The US Marshals Service and the federal government are changing things that are not our fault. I believe it’s unprofessional to bring that up. Our employees are doing their job.
“Maybe we can take expenses off elsewhere to make up that $150,000,” the sheriff added. “All I’m doing is looking out for my employees. I’m here for my staff.
“If we are not going to pay them what they deserve, you are going to see a lot less,” Zertuche said.
“I’d like to give six percent to my staff too,” Comm. Raul Ayala said.
The sheriff added in an interview Monday this week that he does not believe there is a correlation between a decrease in federal detainees being held at the Encinal facility and a number of his staff in the detention center not being certified by the Texas commission on law enforcement (TCLEOSE), as such certification is not a requirement in the facility.
“We have been in talks with the US Marshals Service over this, as we had fewer than three hundred detainees at the regional detention center in Encinal throughout the year,” Zertuche said on Monday. “This has been an ongoing concern, and it’s not because we didn’t meet standards or fell short in any way at that facility. It’s a matter of the detainees needing to be housed closer to the federal courtroom where their cases will be heard.”
La Salle County earns revenue from the federal agencies housing inmates at the regional detention center in Encinal. In order for those revenues to meet the county’s debt obligations on the facility, an estimated three hundred detainees should be held in the detention center for most of the year.
“In the past, the pressure was on, to house the federal detainees – including immigrant offenders – within fifty miles of the courthouse in Webb County, and that’s why Encinal was perfect,” the sheriff said. “We had three hundred in there for a long time. Today, the US Marshals Service is reporting to us that their detainees are in the Del Rio area, which in the Western District of Texas, whereas we are in the Southern District.”
The sheriff reiterated his plea for a six-percent hike at last Thursday’s meeting.
“A percentage increase is the only way to fix the discrepancy,” the sheriff told commissioners on Nov. 30. “It’s a competitive area. We are going to get into big problems if I start losing my staff.”
“Treat it like a business,” Comm. Jack Alba said. “It’s heartbreaking to lay someone off. I support them one hundred percent. I want to thank them for that.”
“Six percent is what I believe my staff deserves,” the sheriff said. “If you don’t believe that, we deserve to hear why.”
Commissioners were silent last week on offering any indicators whether they plan to add the raise to the budget for 2024 and did not go on the record to direct Flores to factor the additional expense into his draft.
The sheriff acknowledged in court that a decision on the budget could be split at the commissioners’ table and addressed the judge before closing his presentation.
“If it comes down to two plus two, who is the deciding vote?” Zertuche asked. “I hope you understand that, sir.”
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