While collective bargaining negotiations between the county and sheriffs deputies are on hold for now, county commissioners are expected to adopt a 2012 budget on Tuesday that would reduce the county jail detention staff by 100 positions.Certainly I favor reducing inmate populations to lower incarceration costs. But an email from a deputy at the jail to your correspondent raises questions about the wisdom of these particular cuts.
Bexar County Manager David Smith said the county originally called for 128 positions to be dissolved through attrition, but after an extra $6 million in revenue was found, the county dropped that number to 100.
"There were no law enforcement positions involved," said Smith. "It takes us almost two full-time people to staff a one person job at the jail and we also have over 800 empty jail beds."
The jail hasn't been near it's 4,596-inmate capacity since July 2009. This year, it's dropped nearly every month and had 3,915 during a count in August."
It doesn't compute to have the same amount of staff now that we did when we had four-thousand plus inmates at the jail," said county commissioner Paul Elizondo. "We want to run a safe jail, absolutely. We want to run a safe jail but we want to run an efficient jail that frees up funds to be spent on other law enforcement activities."
Some detention officers or their union representatives have argued that reducing the overall jail staff will make it unsafe for both employees and inmates, however Elizondo said the state has told the county that they already exceed the minimum number of required staff members by 200.
For starters, the reduction in inmates stems in part from shipping inmates to other counties: "Currently, we have shipped 100 inmates out to Zavala County at a cost of $45.00 per day, per inmate," wrote the deputy. This equates to over $1.6 million per year. We also have another 24 inmates at Frio County but they are being housed at no cost to us at this time." Why is the county shipping inmates to other jurisdictions? According to my source, lack of staffing to open up currently empty wings in the jail: "Currently, we have 9-10 living units closed which, if occupied, would equal another approximately 650 inmates. These units are not staffed because we simply don't have the people to put there."
At current inmate levels, the Bexar Sheriff must use overtime to keep the jail staffed, according to my source: "Currently most of our Detention officers are working mandatory overtime, which for now is paid at time and a half. Every day, approximately 10 officers are kept for an additional shift or part of an additional shift. At our Annex we also have mandatory overtime but we also have authorization for 2 voluntary overtime slots each workday and, I believe, 3 voluntary slots on the weekends. This has helped our staffing a lot but you have to wonder when the money is going to be cut off or run out for overtime and then there's the issue of just working your people to death with overtime."
I don't understand how reducing staffing will help lower costs if the county must turn around and cover shifts paying time-and-a-half. Indeed, commissioners seem aware that reduced staffing will increase overtime costs. "Along with keeping 28 positions, the county plans to use $1.5 million of the new-found revenue to help pay for overtime for extra shifts or when the jail population increases," reported KSAT-TV. It's difficult for me to understand how, if it requires overtime to staff the jail at current levels, Commissioner Elizondo could claim that the jail "exceed[s] the minimum number of required staff members by 200." There's a disconnect in there, somewhere - some hidden rationale that eludes this writer. If you've got more jailers than you need, why are you paying some of them overtime?
The union, laments my deputy informant, is "focused on our collective bargaining agreement rather than the immediate issue of staffing." Indeed, they may soon end up fighting for their very existence. Commissioner Kevin Wolff, son of Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, has called for a petition drive to decertify the union, which could come as early as this November. So the staffing cuts will likely be implemented, and we'll see the effects, for good or ill, down the line.
Indeed, if Commissioner Wolff and his supporters had their way he would privatize the jail outright, and my deputy informant fears cuts in the current budget may be setting the Sheriff up for a battle over privatization down the line:
Losing 64 officers and not replacing them is going to make things very difficult at the jail for staff and inmates. While we are forced to work mandatory overtime we have to worry about when the money is going to run out and then we are essentially working for comp time, which we wont ever get to use due to...staffing issues. The loss of the 64 positions is just the start of the problem. The attrition will continue past that because people quitting, retiring, getting fired etc. are just facts of life. The call ins and absences such as sick, military leave, FMLA etc. will still continue unabated and the jail will become a more dangerous place than it is already. I think our Commissioners are aiming to get the jail to fail a TCJS inspection (we have passed every inspection under our current Sheriff) and cripple our staff so badly, which will make the chances of failing a TCJS inspection that much easier, and either shame the Sheriff or force him to have to privatize.If that's really the motive behind the budget cuts, it's quite a cynical one. Hopefully such speculation is ill-founded, but we're talking about a tense, politically charged situation where such tactics are not out of the realm of possibility.
No doubt, reducing jail and prison populations is the best, quickest way to reduce incarceration costs, at both the county and state level. So Bexar's inmate reductions on their face create an opportunity for savings. But the data on overtime and the practice of housing inmates in other counties raise the possibility that Bexar commissioners may be cutting more than is justified by the lower jail population. Cutting the jail budget is a good thing, but it must be done safely and smartly.