Corrections officers, Williamson County officials clash over pay raises

Corrections officers, WilCo officials clash over pay raisesBoth non-commissioned and commissioned Williamson County corrections officers received 4 and 5 percent pay increases, respectively, to their starting pay as part of the fiscal year 2016-17 budget that went into effect Oct. 1.


But for some corrections officers working within the county jail, the increase was not enough.


Some officers argue the county did not make adjustments for the cost of living in the area. County officials, on the other hand, told the Commissioners Court the jail workers’ salaries are within competitive margins compared to the markets surrounding Williamson County. 


Pay for the officers is determined by a tenure-based pay scale in which each officer receives a pay increase six months after he or she starts. From there, employees receive a 2.25 percent increase each year until the 18th year of employment, when officers reach maximum pay.


Officers working in the county jail are broken down into two categories: non-commissioned corrections officers and commissioned corrections officers, which includes bailiffs, who work in the justice center, and transport officers, who have completed extra training to carry weapons on duty.


Although the entire FY 2016-17 $302 million budget was a widely discussed topic throughout the county because of increased property tax rates and debt paydown, the discussion concerning corrections officers drew the most attention.



Corrections officers, WilCo officials clash over pay raisesOpening arguments


During the Williamson County budget process, two public hearings were held during which citizens and employees of the county could come before the commissioners and make budget requests.   


Noel Johnson, a government affairs liaison for the Texas Municipal Police Association, which represents the majority of Williamson County corrections officers, said his members asked for an 11 percent increase in starting pay for non-commissioned officers and a 20 percent increase in starting pay for commissioned officers.


“Eleven percent would have brought [the pay] almost in line for what it costs to live in this county,” Johnson said.


Tara Raymore, Williamson County senior director of human resources, originally recommended a 2 percent increase in starting pay for both positions, but the court ultimately voted on the higher increases of 4 and 5 percent.


The pay increases the court adopted brought the starting pay for non-commissioned corrections officers from $15.76 per hour to $16.39. Commissioned officers will receive a starting pay of $18.70 per hour starting in October instead of the $17.81 they made last year.


“I feel that what the court did was very generous,” Raymore said. “I feel that does make us competitive in the market, and it does put us ahead compared to many of our competing counties.”


Brian Johns, president of the Williamson County Deputies Association, said that although he appreciates the raise from the county, it is just not enough.


“Where it is something and it is a start, we are not happy with it,” Johns said.



Corrections officers, WilCo officials clash over pay raisesCost-of-living concerns


Georgetown, where the county jail is located, was named the fastest-growing U.S. city with a population over 50,000 earlier this year. Officers, including Anthony English, who works as a non-commissioned corrections officer in the jail and is a WCDA board member, said the court did not take the increasing cost of living into consideration and has not since 2008.


“Those [pay steps on the chart] never kept pace with what it takes to live inside of [Williamson County,]” English said.


Johnson said he could understand how the job might be attractive to someone just starting their career, but that it gets complicated when officers have families. 


“A job that you love and that you got into for all the right reasons becomes a burden for you to provide for your family,” Johnson said.


Raymore acknowledged that Williamson County did not have the highest starting pay in the area, but said the county has other things to offer that other counties might not.


“We have a rich benefits program,” Raymore said. “We have the lowest family coverage premium of any of our competitors.” 


Officers within the jail receive a increase after their first six months and then every year, Raymore said, but some other counties are merit-based.   


“[People] have to remember that we will go up [in pay] every year,” Raymore said. “Some of these [other counties,] they may have that [same] salary, depending on what their policy is, for a year, two years or several years.”



Comparing to other counties 


Both county officials and officers working in the county jail looked to other counties for comparative numbers.


Raymore said although her department sent out requests to counties throughout the state, only 15 responded, and it was difficult to find one comparable to Williamson County.


“[Most other counties] do not have automatic step charts, so we have to look at what their starting salaries are,” Raymore said. “If you try to look at their average salaries, they have people at all different years of service, and it does not correlate to anything here.”


County officials found that when compared to the other 15 counties, such as Bastrop, Burnet, Collin, Hays, Montgomery and Travis counties, the average in FY 2015-16 starting pay was $16.17 per hour for non-commissioned officers. After six months, non-commissioned officers in Williamson County were receiving $16.11 per hour and up to $16.76 when the FY 2016-17 budget went into effect, Raymore said.


Among counties with similar jail populations of between 500-850 inmates, which included Bell, Taylor and Brazoria counties, Raymore said the average hourly rate was $15.74 per hour for non-commissioned officers in FY 2015-16. That was lower than the FY 2015-16 starting pay in Williamson County by $0.02.


Raymore said the county also looked into pay for the surrounding market area, which includes Bell, Bastrop, Burnet, Hays and Travis counties.


“We were slightly behind by about $0.20 per hour [after the six-month increase],” Raymore said. “But again, we have to remember that [other counties] don’t always get an increase [every year].”


Johnson said he believes there were some discrepancies between the counties Williamson County was compared to and the numbers presented to the court.


“At the time of the budget, Hays County did not make more,” Johnson said. “But now they make significantly more, and that pay increase [they got] put them in the market.”


Hays County corrections officers received a 9.56 percent pay increase to starting pay for FY 2016-17.


Burnet County, with a population of 173 inmates in July, and Gillespie  County, with an average of 30 inmates in July, were looked at by Williamson County officials for one salary comparison. But according to Johnson, these are not comparable because Williamson County’s average population ranges between 500-800 inmates.


“When we compare [this] agency to another agency, we are going to compare [it] to agencies that are the same size, have a similar capacity or are in the same area because the area you are in is your market,” Johnson said.


The two entities did agree that Montgomery County was similar in terms of jail population and cost of living, but Raymore said Montgomery County has a much higher tax base. The starting pay for a non-commissioned officer there is $18.34 per hour, according to Raymore.


Raymore also said Bell County is relatively comparable, with 724 inmates   in July and non-commissioned officers receiving $14.27 per hour in FY 2015-16.



Turnover within the jail


During the budget public hearings, corrections officers addressed their concerns over turnover due to the starting pay.


In mid-September, English said there were 17 unfilled positions and three more resignations in the works for control room operators, corrections officers, medical officers and jail deputies—leading to people being overworked.


Johnson said fewer officers could lead to issues among the inmates.


“It is a safety concern for the officers,” Johnson said. “Not only for [them], but also the community in jail. When you have fewer officers, you have fewer people to protect individuals in the jail.”


Raymore said turnover is a common thing for corrections officer positions and something she attributes to the work.


“It’s not a job for everyone,” Raymore said. “Not everyone can do that job.”


But compared to other counties, Raymore said the Williamson County jail turnover rate is not excessive.


“To my knowledge they meet all the numbers on the Texas Commission of Jail Standards,” Raymore said. “They are not understaffed according to that. You have to have a certain number of corrections officers per inmate, and I know they met that requirement.”


Raymore also said she knows there are vacancies that need to be addressed, but that numbers are improving because of recruiting efforts.


“I know the turnover is getting better,” she said.


Starting pay and yearly salary for both non-commissioned and commissioned corrections officers is something that will be looked at and voted on by the county commissioners each year, Raymore said.


“We try to look at where we are in the market [and if] we are being competitive in the market,” Raymore said. “We don’t have to be the highest-paying county.”


The corrections officers, including English and Johns, said they will continue to push for increased salaries.


“The focus will continue to be the corrections officer positions,” Johns said.

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