The fiscal year 2022-23 budget, totaling more than $134.9 million, was adopted by the Comal County Commissioners Court on Aug. 18. The largest portions of the budget will go toward public safety, general government funds, and corrections and rehabilitation.

However, Kevin Webb, Comal County commissioner of Precinct 3, said one of the main goals in this year’s budget was to invest in employees. About $9 million, or more than 9%, of the more than $97 million general government funds from the budget is going toward pay raises and salaries for new county positions.

The Commissioners Court made the decision to prioritize employee compensation in the 2023 budget to address staffing struggles throughout the county. There are 121 vacancies with the sheriff’s department, roads department and district attorney’s department being most affected by staffing shortages.

“We have worked really hard over the years to invest in our facilities and infrastructure so our employees can have a nice, good, safe place to work, but also to service the public in those facilities,” Webb said. “We’ve also invested in transportation on several projects, but it’s been a few years since we really took a hard look at our employees’ wages.”

The adopted budget is about $14 million more than last year’s, which has continued to increase every year as the county grows in population and infrastructure. A total of 23% of the budget will be directed at public safety, according to the county.

Comal County Judge Sherman Krause said the infrastructure improvements throughout the county are driven by keeping up with the population growth. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Comal County grew by over 50,000 residents from 2010-20.

The county’s taxable value increased by 31.12% from $23 billion to $30 billion in the past year, which helped drive down the tax rate of $0.353515 per $100 valuation in 2021 to $0.0284715 for 2022, according to the county.

“The [appraisal district] values went up so much, a lower tax rate generates the amount of money that we needed to fund the 2023 budget,” Krause said.

The 2023 budget will also raise more revenue from total property taxes by a 2.8% increase compared to last year’s budget. More properties are also on the appraisal roll for 2022 compared to 2021, a factor that also contributes to the county’s flexibility with lowering the tax rate.

“We want to make sure that we’re responsive to the taxpayers and provide the services that our community needs while trying to keep the tax rate as low as we possibly can,” Krause said.

Staffing struggles

While revenues are on the rise, an in-house analysis conducted in February 2022 showed Comal County was paying significantly lower salaries than market demand, leading to trouble filling open positions. Several elected officials and department heads expressed concern over unfilled positions within departments during the county’s fiscal year 2022-23 budget workshops.

The analysis also shows that most surrounding municipalities offer more competitive wages.

“We can’t hire people at the wages we’re offering,” Webb said. “For 2022, we’ll end up with about $5 million in salary savings from positions we couldn’t fill. The proposal is to put those savings into current employee salaries.”

The Commissioners Court voted to increase salary wages for all positions, filled and unfilled, by 8% to attract and retain employees. Webb says the wage increase does not apply to elected officials.

“We’ve lost a lot, and the sort of Great Resignation we’ve had has cost us a lot of experience, and in positions that you really need to have continuity and provide good service to the public,” Webb said.

Jennifer Tharp, Comal County criminal district attorney, told the Commissioners Court that her department needs its five open positions filled as quickly as possible due to the high volume of work her office is experiencing.

“The sheriff’s office needs those people; I need my positions filled as well,” Tharp said. “We are drowning with the work but still trying to make sure that the public safety is maintained and that we get the job done and done at the level that our victims deserve.”

Comal County Sheriff Mark Reynolds said he has more than 70 unfilled positions at the sheriff’s office and county jail, but since the announcement has been made to raise pay in the county there has been more interest in the open positions.

Reynolds said that Comal County’s’ rapid growth led to the sheriff’s office’s request to add 16 deputy positions in the 2021-22 budget, but due to employees retiring or leaving for higher pay, the positions have not been able to be filled, and more have opened up. Five additional positions have been added for the sheriff’s office in the 2022-23 budget as well as several new staff positions at the county jail.

“We’re already seeing the merit of the wage increase,” Reynolds said. “Several employees were applying for work elsewhere for higher pay but have now withdrawn those applications. I’m thankful to the judge and commissioners for adopting a wage increase that makes us competitive.”

The county’s road department has also had trouble filling 24 open positions. The Criminal District Attorney’s Office has another 10 open positions that have not been filled for months.

Webb said he plans to propose the same 8% pay increase in the 2023-24 budget.

“The increase, combined with what County Judge Sherman Krause has proposed in the 2023 budget, should put Comal County in place to hire and retain the people needed to get the county’s business done in a way we can be proud of,” Webb said.

Krause said he hopes the wage increase allows Comal County to be more competitive in the job market and encourage applicants.

“It wasn’t that long ago when we posted a position, sometimes we would get over 100 applicants for those positions,” Krause said. “Today, we sometimes post positions and get zero applications.”

Investment in employees

A total of 704 county employees received an 8% pay increase in September. The county is budgeting for a total of 855 positions in 2023.

Most departments will begin advertising the additional positions in mid-November to allow the interview process, with the new positions beginning on January 1, according to the county. An additional $5,000 will be allocated to employee salaries beginning Jan. 1. The last time wages increased was by 4% in 2020, according to the county.

A common trend of employees leaving county positions has been due to burnout from working mandatory overtime to make up for the jobs that have not been filled, Krause said.

“I read the exit interviews when people leave ... and we’re seeing more and more of those exit interviews that people are leaving because of the workload,” Krause said. “They are working overtime, and they’re working more overtime than they want to.”

The county has also funded an additional 37 positions to accommodate growth. The district attorney’s office will have 16 of those positions funded in the FY 2022-23 budget to help it catch up to cases that were put on hold earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Comal County is not alone in increasing employees’ wages. Travis and Bexar counties increased wages by 5% across the board this year, according to county documents.

“We’re thankful that the commissioners considered [increasing pay] this year,” Reynolds said. “I know that had been considered in the past, but they put a lot of work into this year’s budget for the employees, and we’re very appreciative of that.”