Bexar County Commissioners Court voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a $2.9 billion 2022-23 fiscal year budget that will include funding for 12 new sheriff’s deputies — a change from the county’s initial budget proposal, which lacked money for those positions.

The budget also will allow the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office to fill some civilian positions that were frozen to save money during the pandemic but had not been restored in the county’s original proposal.

The move comes as commissioners faced criticism from members of both political parties who came to last week’s meeting and spoke in favor of bolstering the county’s law enforcement efforts amid growing concern about crime.

“Safety is very important right now,” said Democratic Party Chair Monica Alcántara, who joined a group of progressive leaders in questioning the county’s initial budget proposal for the sheriff’s office. “President Biden came out with a very strong message. … The answer is not to defund the police but to fund the police.”

Sheriff Javier Salazar had initially requested 36 new deputies and six officers in the budget, along with other positions.

Texas law says local governments must call an election if they want to reduce their spending on law enforcement from one year to the next, making it difficult to remove positions once they’re added.

The budget approved Tuesday includes $157.2 million for the sheriff’s office, a roughly 3.5% increase from the previous year, according to the county.

Commissioners added roughly $1 million to fund 12 new sheriff’s deputies and two supervisor positions to create new patrol districts in areas of the county that aren’t served by city police departments.

“I think the court really emphasized that we want to protect the citizens that are out in the incorporated areas,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said of the final budget.

The budget approved Tuesday also adds $780,000 to allow the sheriff’s department to hire for some of the dozens of civilian openings at the county jail that it was barred from filling after the beginning of the pandemic.

In an interview after Tuesday’s meeting, Salazar said that change would allow him to put officers who had been brought in to fill the frozen administrative positions back on patrol or in the jail. The finalized budget cut funding for overtime pay at the jail by nearly $900,000, noting that “unfreezing civilian positions … will reallocate uniformed officers back to their original duties.”

Though the county is now flush with cash from rising property valuations and federal pandemic relief, dozens of county administrative positions that were frozen to cut costs during the pandemic will remain that way in the coming year’s budget.

Most of the remaining frozen positions are in the sheriff’s office, according to the county’s budget update.

“Our [Geographic Information Systems] technician had been with the agency for many years, and during COVID she just decided she needed to go spend time with her family,” said Salazar, referring to a position that helps create crime heat maps for the department to direct its resources.

“Freezing that position was catastrophic to us because in some instances we were flying blind, or we had to then pull a deputy off the street to learn how to do that job and to perform that function for us,” Salazar said.

County Manager David Smith did not respond to an email requesting a comment on the frozen positions Tuesday.

During the initial budget presentation on Aug. 23, Smith said his data showed additional personnel wouldn’t help the performance of the sheriff’s department. He suggested Salazar reassign officers currently working on a special crime unit if the sheriff believed more patrol officers were needed.

By the next meeting of the commissioners court, Smith drew criticism over the budget for law enforcement.

Not only were the county’s slate of Republican candidates in attendance to express concern about the issue, but a group of voting rights activists who signed up to talk about voting locations also voiced their concerns about how insufficient law enforcement funding could lead to more crime in their neighborhoods.

“When law enforcement is saying they need more funding to hire additional officers, please accept that statement on face value to be true,” said Keely Collier, the political chair for San Antonio’s chapter of the NAACP. ”They’re asking for more money because there is a real crime problem in San Antonio.”

Others expressed concern about poor working conditions for officers in the jail.

“Fund these people,” said another speaker. “They work in horrendous conditions.”

The jail is currently understaffed by hundreds of positions, and deputies working there say they can’t take time off or turn down constant requests to work overtime. They’ve also complained about broken locks and other persistent maintenance issues.

Though Smith’s budget proposal included a slight increase in funding for the jail, he wrote a letter explaining his decisions to Salazar and commissioners ahead of last week’s meeting.

“As of October 2022, all uniformed officers in the sheriff’s office will receive a 15% pay increase in less than a one year period,” Smith wrote.

Salazar said a new cadet class started training this week and will help fill some vacancies at the jail once its members graduate in about 17 weeks. He hopes to begin training another class of recruits in November.

Referring to other provisions in the budget, Salazar said he believed commissioners were helping conditions in the jail by funding mental health initiatives and hospitals that could help reduce the jail population.

“That’s really the only way we’re going to be able to impact [incarceration] over time,” he said. “We need to break our over-reliance on our county jails to fix all of society’s woes.”

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.