A new wide-ranging study of the Bexar County Adult Detention Center recommends that the county take swift action to address its persistent staffing woes, including filling civilian positions that were frozen during the pandemic and making other changes to improve employee retention.
The county commissioned the study from American Correctional Consultants (ACC) more than a year ago to address the rising use of overtime hours to adequately staff the jail — a source of ongoing conflict between the commissioners and Sheriff Javier Salazar.
Finally presented to the Commissioners Court on Tuesday, the results largely mirrored those of a study Salazar commissioned on his own that were released earlier this year.
Both the county and the sheriff’s consultants focused on the challenges of attracting and retaining employees in a high-stress work environment while also competing against a surplus of other employment options.
“It is tough, because you’re competing right now against the world, or at least all of the metro area of San Antonio,” ACC consultant Keith Neely told commissioners.
“The most important thing I can leave you with … is it is extremely important that this department look at which benefits and what incentives matter most to applicants,” Neely said.
Roughly 1,600 people currently work at the jail, including both law enforcement and civilian roles. The sheriff’s department currently is offering a $2,000 signing bonus and pay that starts at $43,908 per year for detention deputies.
The sheriff’s office is short about 230 deputies for the detention center — one of the main problems causing the use of mandatory overtime, according to Salazar.
In a presentation that lasted more than an hour, Neely walked commissioners through his math for determining optimal staffing levels, which calls for an additional 60 full-time employees on top of filling the current vacancies.
“We can’t fill the vacancies that we have right now,” Neely said, so the county will have to get creative to fill the gaps.
To fill the most pressing need for sheriff’s deputies, Neely recommended immediately moving law enforcement officers out of administrative positions and filling those roles with civilian employees, a move he said he normally wouldn’t advise because it limits career opportunities for the deputies.
“I make that recommendation because the county is in a dire need to fill these [law enforcement] positions,” Neely said.
He also called for reassessing which roles at the jail could potentially be handled by civilians, again seeking to reduce the number of job openings that must be filled by sheriff’s deputies.
“These certified detention deputies are valuable resources that quite frankly should be working in operations … reducing the mandatory overtime,” Neely said.
Neely said it was critical for the county to fix lagging morale, and “overtime is the driving factor of that.”
Salazar said he agreed with Neely’s assessments and hoped the study would encourage the county to work with him on implementing some of the recommendations.
In particular, the sheriff said he hoped to be able to fill additional civilian positions that were frozen during the pandemic, forcing him to move a number of deputies into clerical roles. While some of the 42 positions were restored during the budget process earlier this year, 19 were not, according to the sheriff’s office.
“We’re looking at a bunch of civilian positions that if we could just get them unfrozen, we would be able to hire in some civilian people, or even rehire people that left the sheriff’s office as deputies, but may want to come back and do some of that civilian work,” Salazar said.
Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) said he agreed that the court should reconsider the frozen positions in this “crisis moment” for the jail.
In making its assessments, ACC looked at the jail’s physical facilities, operational and security systems, staffing, administrative support and recruitment strategies.
The study praised Bexar County’s starting salary, which was recently increased and now ranks 11th among other Texas counties. It also commended the county for pouring nearly $25 million into facilities improvements, of which nearly $20 million are already underway.
While it found room for some improvements to the facility, a surprising number of the study’s recommendations focused on improving employee morale and workplace happiness.
Neely recommended swapping out break rooms for a cafeteria where employees could access the internet, since they’re not allowed to use personal cell phones while working in the detention center. He also suggested giving employees of at least five years $5,000 to put toward the purchase of a home.
Likewise, Salazar’s recent study focused on restructuring the work week so that employees working 50-hour weeks would have more reliable schedules and more days off in a row.
“Recruiting and hiring isn’t necessarily our issue, it’s hanging on to these folks,” Salazar told commissioners. “So the morale is where it’s going to be key.”
In his first meeting since being sworn in last week, Commissioner Grant Moody (Pct. 3) agreed that the county should explore low-cost projects to improve and help mitigate the retention issues. He also suggested bumping salaries to put the county at the top of the hiring market, at least temporarily, during a hiring crisis.
“I think it’s worth considering … is it something that we have to go a little further on in order to start turning the corner?” said Moody. “To be able to get to a point where we have higher morale, higher retention… and then you can kind of grow out of the pay and benefits issues over time.”