Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Top earning jailers make more than judges in Harris County

It's hard to imagine that the top earning jailers in Harris County earn upwards of $150K per year, but that's the case thanks to an overstuffed, understaffed jail that pays out oodles of overtime, the Houston Chronicle reports ("Taxpayers get tab for OT at Sheriff's office," April 12):

In a 4,300-employee department, the 67 who earned at least $50,000 in overtime last year accounted for $4.1 million in time-and-a-half pay. Garcia inherited a department that spent $34.8 million in overtime the year before he took office.

The Sheriff's Office does not have the manpower to do all its work, Garcia explained. The shortage has worsened since a county government hiring freeze went into effect in September, so the office has not been able to replace the 15 or 20 employees who retire or resign each month. A consultant's report in December concluded the department was 342 employees short.

When Commissioners Court adopted a $1.37 billion budget last month, it also adopted broad policy proposals that included the possibility of lifting the hiring freeze just for the sheriff and the district attorney.

Garcia said he has received permission to hire as many as 100 part-time employees but that he has not yet asked Commissioners Court for permission to hire everyone he needs. “We recognize the economy we're in,” Garcia said. “We wait for the budget office to guide us as to when to put it on the agenda.” Other county departments are laying off dozens of employees because of budget cuts.

The manpower shortage is exacerbated by an antiquated system of scheduling that relies on what Garcia calls “a combination of spreadsheets, chalkboard and pencil and paper.”

The manpower shortage is exacerbated by an antiquated system of scheduling that relies on what Garcia calls “a combination of spreadsheets, chalkboard and pencil and paper.”

So instead of paying detention officers to cover shifts at $15.43 to $21.62 an hour, there is plenty of overtime ... somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 an hour.

Nor is the entire bill paid in the paycheck. The extra hours fatten pensions that are calculated on the basis of career earnings.

The top-earning Harris County deputy made more than $165,000 last year. A sitting district judge, by contrast, makes $140K, and gets no additional overtime no matter how many hours they work. High overtime costs are why Harris County must house 1,000 inmates in other counties even though on paper the jail has enough capacity - they could only staff the additional, empty jail wings by paying deputies at rates that make judges and attorneys envious.

There's an extent to which hiring more guards - up to a certain, calculable point - is cheaper than paying the ones you've got six-figure salaries to work 80 hour weeks. However, the solution cannot be ever-greater levels of spending, but must involve actors in every part of the system changing policies to reduce the number of jail inmates - particularly reducing pretrial detention and ceasing unnecessary arrests for misdemeanors where the law allows officers to write a citation.

Like so many other jurisdictions, jail overcrowding in Harris County is volitional, not structural: It's a function of decisions by elected officials, particularly judges, not some inalterable dictum from on high or the inevitable result of population growth. Those decisions have a real-world economic cost and when jail guards are making up to $16oK, taxpayers are overpaying.


Anonymous said...

Good for these jailers whose base pay is well below that of a district judge.

Anonymous said...

If the top paid Deputy is making the top of the pay scale of $21.62 per hour, than to make $165,000.00 he would have to work about 110 hours a week, or about 16 hrs. a day 7 days a week.

Anonymous said...

12:10 negative 12:10, overtime is paid at a rate of 1 and one half times. A deputy actually working 80 hours in a work week would be compensated as if he worked 120 hours. And if the le agency has adopted the 7k exemption of the FLSA then that's another formula in itself.