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Court reaches compromise on deputy pay plan

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After an hour and a half of continued debate regarding deputy pay, the Bastrop County Commissioners Court passed the budget for the 2019-2020 year during last Monday’s meeting.

Since August, the court has been considering the next budget, a large part of which includes raises for county staff. This budget includes a $2,000 across-the-board raise for all county employees, as well as opportunities for merit pay stipends.

For the past three sessions, however, the court has been debating the possibility of a step incentive program for all deputies in the sheriff’s office, proposed by Sheriff Maurice Cook. The step incentive program, which would be comprised of six steps over 16 years with raises at each step, would help keep Bastrop County’s Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) competitive with surrounding law enforcement agencies that have similar programs, Cook has argued.

The cost this year would be $45,000 to start the program if the raises were to begin in October, or $34,000 if the raises were effective in January. The program splits the 81 patrol and criminal investigation deputies into three groups; this year, one of the groups would get raises, while the other two would get raises the following two years.

In this year’s budget, BCSO will receive an extra $65,000 by removing one officer position, which would be a dedicated fund that would stay with BCSO regardless of whether or not all of it is used within the next year.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Clara Beckett’s suggestion was to lower the $2,000 across-the-board raise to $1,500 per employee, turning that money into a seed to start the step incentive program. She also suggested that, between merit pay, longevity pay and cost of living raises, the law enforcement department might not need to receive all three on top of the step incentive program.

“We probably need to give some kind of certainty to law enforcement about where they’ll be in five or ten years and try to deal with this attrition problem that’s so clearly evident,” Beckett said.

County Judge Paul Pape objected to the program, citing a lack of a clearly laid-out plan with yearly costs for the next 15 years.

“You (Beckett) already indicated that one way to fund this, even in the early years, is to take money away from all the other employees of the county to give more money to this special class of employee,” Pape said. “That not only would have to happen this year, but it would have to happen every year for the next 15 years.”

Pape added this new budget already depends on revenue exceeding the 3.5 percent property tax revenue increase that the county will be bound to next year due to recent restrictions placed by the state legislature.

“It doesn’t make any sense to plant a seed if you can’t water it next year,” he said.

Cook said it takes between two and four months to train a deputy, depending on their level of training.

“It’s not necessarily the money that’s lost, it’s the service that’s lost to the taxpayers of the county,” Cook said. “We’re not able to come up to the standard that I’d like to see our deputies be, simply because we can’t retain deputies.”

Since future county budgets can’t guarantee future expenses, future funding of the step incentive program would not be guaranteed. Pape asked Cook if it would help recruiting to advertise a step incentive program, with the condition that funding depends on approval by the court.

“I think everyone understands, if you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money,” Cook said.

After further discussion, the court discussed the difference between a stipend and a raise. Pape said the money is intended for stipends not added to the base salary of the deputies, similar to the county’s longevity program.

“We’re not giving these people a raise, and then taking back,” Beckett responded.

Pape said if it was added to the base salary, the cost of the program would soon accumulate to a cost too high for the county.

“Because of the principles of compounding, you get to a point where sometime in the future, unless the legislature takes the handcuffs off of local government, it’s possible … that the guaranteed raises accumulating for the deputies would mean that nobody in the county got anything,” he said. “We’re not going to go there.”

With 15 minutes left in the discussion, the court began to come to a compromise. Pape said he would be willing to consider allowing the money to be added to the deputies’ base salaries. As a compromise, the court agreed to remove from the final draft of the budget the stipulation that the funds they could not be added to the base salary.

“I think we’re sticking our neck on the chopping block, but we need a budget and we need it now,” Pape said.

When Pape asked if they would support this compromise, each commissioner responded that they want to see a sustainable program in the future to support the step incentive program.

The court passed the budget as amended 4-1, with Pape voting against the budget.

The court also approved the new property tax rate for the county, $0.5699 per $100 of taxable value. This is one cent less than last year’s tax rate. Due to rising property values in the county, this lowered tax rate will still generate more revenue for the county than last year.