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As the Bexar County manager’s office eyes budget cuts to prepare for the economic impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, one department facing reductions is fighting once more to keep staffers.
Two years ago, Bexar County commissioners opted against cutting 15 deputy constable positions from the four constables’ offices during their budget discussions. The Precinct 2 commissioner at the time, Paul Elizondo, found enough funding to save those positions.
For the fiscal year 2020-2021 budget, the county manager’s office has recommended eliminating 38 positions out of 69 among the four constable precincts, Assistant County Manager Tina Smith-Dean said. That would save Bexar County a projected $2.7 million.
Last Thursday, each precinct’s constable pleaded with commissioners to keep their staffing numbers intact. Constable Leticia Vazquez, who replaced Precinct 2 Constable Michelle Barrientes-Vela last fall, urged commissioners to remember that eliminated jobs would affect Bexar County residents.
“I want everybody to take into consideration that these people’s lives will be turned upside-down because right now during COVID it’s hard to get a job,” she said. “And then also, our community will suffer in every precinct because they’re not going to get the service by cutting 11 [people] from my office.”
Constables are law enforcement officers whose positions are established by the Texas Constitution. They are elected once every four years, and they and their deputies serve civil papers and warrants, as well as provide security as bailiffs for justice of the peace courts.
Using data from last October to February, constables’ workload across the four precincts is projected to decline significantly in the next year, according to Smith-Dean. Constable workload is determined by looking at the number of warrants and civil papers served.
“Without taking into account the COVID-19 impact, we’re projecting workload to decrease by 15 percent this fiscal year compared to last fiscal year,” Smith-Dean told commissioners last Thursday.
Some duties performed by constables can be outsourced to a third-party vendor, she added.
All four constables objected to the proposal. Constable Ruben C. Tejeda (Pct. 1) argued with commissioners, defending the work his employees do and pointing to the economic recession brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“These deputies are very hard-working and dedicated to the community that they serve proudly,” Tejeda said. “This pandemic has left everyone in dire needs. There was no set guidance or procedures in place that we could follow concerning the pandemic. It took everyone by surprise that we are being punished due to the pandemic. Not only are we punishing our deputies by eliminating their jobs, but punishing their families.”
Constable Mark Vojvodich (Pct. 3) argued that cutting constable staffing during a lull due to pandemic-related holds on evictions and other civil cases would prove unwise. Eviction notices are among the civil papers the deputies serve.
“It is a disservice to each precinct,” Vojdovich said, citing a backlog in Precinct 3 of “about 1,100 civil cases, including evictions, that will probably [resume] after the various moratoriums on civil process and evictions occur. We need to be staffed for that.”
Vojvodich said constables generate County revenue in the form of civil fees collected.
“We pretty much pay for ourselves,” he said.
Commissioners have two more budget work sessions before a Sept. 15 vote to approve the budget. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff directed County Manager David Smith to work with each constable’s office to “reconcile the numbers.”
Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) said he would not support the job cuts and that he appreciated the constables’ presence in his precinct.
“I will say, as the constables serve papers, their presence in the community makes a difference in terms of reducing crime and making folks feel that there’s some patrol in their areas,” Calvert said.
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County staff advised commissioners on Aug. 25 that deputy constables could help fill 238 open detention deputy positions at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center. Calvert said he was uncertain that deputy constables would readily apply to work at the jail, a job that calls for responsibilities different from working as a deputy constable and may pose a higher risk for contracting the novel coronavirus in a congregate setting.
Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3), who is leaving his seat at the end of the year, urged his colleagues to establish a firm formula for constable funding.
“We have been down this road before,” he said. “It wasn’t too long ago where we did a multiyear phased sort of piece where we said we were going to cut approximately the same number of positions from constables. That lasted one year before the political pressure was enough to get this body to rescind that and restaff the constables or not cut anymore. I tell you that because you’re going to have that same problem again. I’m already hearing it.”
Commissioners are set to discuss more departments’ budgets on Thursday, including the county courts, civil district courts, and the sheriff’s office.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect Constable Leticia Vazquez as the appointed constable for Precinct 2.