A proposal to shrink the number of deputies within the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office and shift their duties to county constables became a point of contention Tuesday as county commissioners discussed the proposed fiscal year 2022 budget.

Sheriff Javier Salazar protested the proposed elimination of 12 positions assigned to civil processes within his agency, while Commissioner Trish DeBerry (Pct. 3) pointed out that the positions were being shifted to another law enforcement agency. 

The pair clashed over Salazar’s characterization that the sheriff’s office is being “defunded.”

Under the proposed budget, 28 new constables will be hired, seven for each precinct. Four will provide patrol services to county parks, while the other three will take over civil processing duties from the sheriff’s office. There are currently about 50 deputy constable positions across the four precincts.

The dozen deputy sheriffs who currently serve civil process papers will have the opportunity to move elsewhere within the department, said County Manager David Smith.

Removing the deputy positions would save about $900,000 in salaries and benefits, while adding 28 constables carries a $1.7 million price tag. That also includes four new civilian security monitors, one for each precinct.

In a letter sent to commissioners last Thursday, Salazar characterized the removal of the 12 positions as an effort “to defund the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office.” Removing the positions would result in a “direct threat to public safety in Bexar County,” Salazar wrote.

DeBerry bristled at the use of “defunding.” 

“That is not what we’re doing,” she said. “We’re funding constables in individual precincts.”

Salazar said there should be a way to maintain staffing levels in his department while also providing constables with more positions. He also said that reducing his staff might have a larger impact than expected, as deputies must first work in the jail before moving on to law enforcement positions. 

“Reducing our ranks by 12 would in fact shrink the opportunity for people to realize their dreams and quite possibly result in 12 people throwing their hands up and leaving,” he said to commissioners Tuesday.

Salazar and DeBerry have butted heads before. One of the Precinct 3 commissioner’s earliest actions was to scrutinize the amount of overtime pay that the sheriff’s office uses on its detention deputies. This year, the department is on track to spend $13 million in overtime pay.

Later, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff chastised Salazar for initially remaining silent after DeBerry received a barrage of sexist comments and messages stemming from a donation made by a coffee company to a fund benefiting the sheriff’s office. That donation was meant to help purchase a rescue boat after DeBerry questioned whether the boat was a priority.

Salazar made reference to the past tension in his Sept. 2 letter.

“I personally feel that this effort to take deputies from me and thereby affecting public safety is highly suspect,” he wrote. “I feel there may be some retaliatory actions afoot, due to past disagreements. As you know, personal feelings and/or politics should never be allowed to endanger public safety.”

The sheriff’s office continues to struggle with retention, mainly among detention officers, as they leave the department so frequently that vacancies are never fully filled. Salazar’s department has been recruiting with gusto recently; perks include $2,000 hiring bonuses. That effort appears to be paying off. Salazar said 140 recruits or nearly-graduated cadets are now poised to help fill more than 300 vacancies within the sheriff’s office.

With so many vacancies, detention deputies putting in overtime remains a necessity. But not all overtime costs come from the lack of detention deputies, Salazar said: “A sizable portion of our overtime in the jail comes from the state’s lack of movement but also the pandemic.”

Wolff criticized the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for failing to transfer its prisoners out of the county jail into state prisons in a timely manner. According to Salazar, there are 248 people within the Bexar County jail that are ready for transfer but have not yet been picked up. There are about 4,400 people in the Bexar County jail, pushing it near peak capacity.

“They give excuses that they can’t take them,” Wolff said. “They can’t take them because they have COVID; so do we. And then they decommissioned a prison and put poor immigrants in there instead of putting criminals in there. I think all of that is wrong.”

Commissioners agreed to continue their discussion of the sheriff’s budget and other proposed amendments to the 2022 budget during another meeting on Friday afternoon. 

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.