This story has been updated.
In an unusual move, local lawmakers from both parties are teaming up with the Bexar County sheriff’s deputies union to force the county’s hand on beefing up law enforcement for the county’s growing unincorporated areas.
Bexar County has roughly 400 law enforcement officers currently, according to the Deputy Sheriffs Association of Bexar County (DSABC). House Bill 2566, crafted by Texas Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio), would require the county to hire roughly 320 additional officers, according to the union.
“We have a situation where 400,000 people live in the unincorporated areas of Bexar County and the sheriff’s department is woefully understaffed,” Allison told members of the House County Affairs Committee at the bill’s first hearing Wednesday.
Eight of the county’s 10 state House representatives, including five Democrats and three Republicans, support the bill, as does Sheriff Javier Salazar and the union, whose leader testified before the committee.
Opposed are several members of the Bexar County Commissioners Court, who say they haven’t had time to correct the problems leading up to a funding dispute last fall between Salazar and County Manager David Smith.
“This is a bill of extremes and I ask that you not let [it] out of committee,” said Ramon Chapa Jr., director of community engagement for Precinct 4, who testified on behalf of Commissioner Tommy Calvert. “Our county judge has not been in office for even 100 days to propose his first budget with a new court.”
A contentious fiscal year 2023 budget discussion about new sheriff’s department positions occurred under the leadership of former Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.
Bexar County’s proposed fiscal year 2023 budget included funding for one new support services officer for the sheriff’s office, despite Salazar’s request for 74 total positions.
Judge Peter Sakai was sworn in to lead the court at the beginning of the year and has signaled plans to be more involved in the budget process than his predecessor.
Though HB 2566 doesn’t specifically mention Bexar County, Allison told the committee Wednesday that it would not apply to any other county in the state. It singles out counties with a population of at least 1.5 million, in which more than 70% of the population lives in a single municipality.
It would require Bexar County to employ 1.8 peace officers for every 1,000 residents living in unincorporated parts of the county. The union says that would mean roughly 720 officers.
“I know this is going to be seen as an unfunded mandate, and it is,” Allison said Wednesday.
But after witnessing the disarray at last year’s budget discussion, he added, the county “leaves us no choice but to bring a bill like this to require that there be recognition of public safety by the government.”
After a public backlash against the omission of new deputy positions, commissioners ultimately approved a budget with funding for 12 new sheriff’s deputies and two supervisor positions to serve unincorporated parts of the county. They also added money to fill some civilian positions that were frozen during the pandemic, which Salazar said he’d had to fill by pulling uniformed officers off duty.
“I sat in on the budget considerations by the county, [and] heard testimony from constituents of one of the commissioners pleading for more sheriffs in the unincorporated areas of that part of the county,” Allison said Wednesday. “It went to no avail, when they’ve shown the demonstrated need.”
Said Salazar to the committee: “The changes [proposed in this bill] are not done out of malice on our part… [and] the the budget struggles that we’ve had have not been done necessarily out of malice on the part of my commissioners.
“However, we do have a … county manager that unfortunately is allowed to unilaterally dictate to us what we get and what we don’t get.”
Smith’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
DSABC President Ron Tooke told the committee that the state’s recent changes making annexation more difficult had caused an explosion in the population of Bexar County living outside of the San Antonio Police Department’s service area.
“We’ve got 80,000 houses right now, according to the county engineer, that are pending approval for permits to be built in unincorporated Bexar County,” Tooke said. “… We’re overwhelmed and we’re begging for help.”
But among the county’s concerns, Chapa said, was the feasibility of filling the additional positions. Patrol officers must first work as detention deputies in the county jail, which consistently relies on mandatory overtime to address severe staffing shortages.
Last week, before the bill had been scheduled for a hearing, Bexar County commissioners agreed to work behind the scenes to shut it down.
Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) said he’d already had some informal conversations with the union about its concerns. He said he also planned to reach out to state Rep. Victoria Neave Criado (D-Dallas), who chairs the County Affairs Committee, and with whom Rodriguez had served with in the Legislature.
At the same meeting, Calvert warned that by going over commissioners’ heads the union was tarnishing its relationship with the county’s new leaders.
“Give this court a chance,” Calvert implored the union. “Please do not let this bill ruin what began as a very positive relationship.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the bill would raise the number of patrol officers. It would raise the number of law enforcement officers.