County officials, including two whose election victories in November restored female representation to Commissioners Court for the first time in 20 years, sharply chastised Sheriff Javier Salazar on Tuesday for spending millions of dollars in overtime pay at the understaffed Bexar County jail.

Salazar requested $2.49 million in pay and benefits covering 61,500 hours of overtime between Dec. 4, 2020, and Feb. 21, 2021. The Budget Department had recommended approving just shy of $600,000 for the period, or only 14,760 overtime hours, based on its analysis of current and projected staffing levels.

Salazar acknowledged that part of the request, despite being earmarked for future overtime spending, is needed to pay overtime already worked. Commissioners ultimately approved the full 61,500 hours with the caveat that Salazar must be more transparent about his office’s overtime budgeting going forward.

“I’m not going to vote on another one of these [requests] unless I know who made the overtime and why did he make it,” said County Judge Nelson Wolff, pointing out that the sheriff consistently requests significant overtime pay, costing the County upward of $10 million in 2020.

At the current rate, the County is projected to spend more than $12 million in 2021 solely on overtime hours for detention deputies, County Manager David Smith said.

“We don’t understand how you’re burning through all those hours,” Smith told Salazar. “[Detention deputies] worked the hours, but we don’t understand why.”

Salazar assured commissioners that the hours were necessary and his office was working on training and hiring new detention deputies to make up for the employment gap. In 2020, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office hired 238 people, but Salazar told reporters in December that roughly about 200 left the office in the same time frame.

Wolff also called for a “professional jail administrator” to help run the Bexar County Adult Detention Center, at which Salazar bristled. He has three licensed jail administrators on staff and argued that the coronavirus pandemic was to blame for exacerbating staffing issues at the jail due to social distancing protocols. Inmates who normally would have been incarcerated in the same space now are split into two areas, effectively doubling the number of deputies who need to be at work at the same time, Salazar explained.

“It’s not a lack of management,” he said. “It’s the fact that we’re having retention issues at the Bexar County jail. … Everybody seems to be acting as if I created this crisis.”

Commissioner Trish DeBerry (D3), who marked her first meeting on the dais Tuesday, said the money spent on jailers’ overtime was “unacceptable.”

“With all respect, Sheriff, you have done the best job you know how to do,” she said. “I appreciate the work you do day in and day out, but that’s from a law enforcement side. From a corrections standpoint, we don’t have a good strategy.”

DeBerry said she saw clear issues of culture and morale based on the staff survey conducted by the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Bexar County. The union published its report in December after gathering many responses of dissatisfied employees who felt unfairly treated and overworked.

DeBerry also cited the personal testimony of a woman who shared with commissioners Tuesday that her son died by suicide after struggling with and leaving his job as a detention deputy.

Salazar chafed at DeBerry’s linking of the man’s death to working conditions at the jail.

“I would remind everyone that that young man, as troubled as he was, took his life four months after his employment,” Salazar said. “He wasn’t working with us anymore. My heart goes out to the lady and the family, but you can’t unfairly vilify the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office for something that happened four months after he left our agency.”

Bexar County Commissioners Court convenes on January 12, 2021, with its two new members, Trish DeBerry and Rebeca Clay-Flores.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar (center). Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Rebeca Clay-Flores, the other newly elected commissioner, took issue with Salazar’s protest.

“From a mental health perspective, it doesn’t matter how long after the person left a place of employment,” said Clay-Flores (Pct. 1). “It was definitely a factor, though it was not the reason. In mental health, our entire life affects decisions.

“I do want to say it is not my job as a new county commissioner to micromanage you or what you’re doing at the jail. And so as we think of how much money we spend on overtime – which I do think is ridiculous, when we think about $10 [million] to $12 million – to make sure it doesn’t happen next year.”

After Salazar agreed to Wolff’s request to go through overtime pay requests line-by-line to help the County understand how the money will be spent, commissioners approved the $2.49 million request, with DeBerry voting against.

Funding domestic violence prevention

Commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday to add staff to the district attorney’s office to help with the domestic violence caseload. The move came in response to a recommendation by the Collaborative Commission on Domestic Violence, a City-County effort formed in 2019 after the San Antonio Police Department handled 25 domestic violence-related homicides in 2018.

With the additional $350,000 allocated to the district attorney’s office Tuesday, Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) hopes to address the issue of domestic violence with more resources.

“There was a recommendation made that said we need to address both the criminal and civil side,” he said. ‘The pandemic has exacerbated issues and we have seen a significant increase in the number of cases coming to us through the justice system.”

Before the pandemic, County Courts 7 and 13 had about 3,000 misdemeanor family violence cases that ended up in a backlog that still needs to be addressed, District Attorney Joe Gonzales told commissioners. The number of pending misdemeanor family violence cases has since grown to 4,600, though six other judges have agreed to accept some of those cases to share the workload.

“We know that during a period where we were sheltering in place, victims of domestic violence had to shelter with their abusers,” Gonzales said. “Now that they’re coming out of the shadows, we know that they’re coming forward and filing their cases. And we have to prosecute those individuals.”

The district attorney’s office plans to hire two misdemeanor prosecutors, a felony prosecutor, and a paralegal with the funding approved Tuesday. 

County commissioners also approved using $492,000 to help establish the Civil Family Violence Prevention Program, whose aims include ensuring that protective orders are followed.

“This is not really the culmination of the work [on domestic violence]. I think it’s the start of the work,” Rodriguez said.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.