New Braunfels, area first responders contend with population growth

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It is no secret the city of New Braunfels and by extension Comal and Guadalupe counties have been some of the fastest-growing areas in the country in recent years.

The city of New Braunfels was ranked as the second-fastest growing city in the nation in 2018 with a growth rate of 8% from the previous year, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

According to bureau estimates, New Braunfels surpassed a total resident population of 80,000 for the first time in 2018, and the city will be home to more than 105,000 residents by 2024. In response, area first responders and emergency service providers are preparing for the challenges that additional residents will bring, New Braunfels Chief of Police Tom Wibert said.

“Our main challenge is having enough people on the street to keep up with phone calls and to be able to respond,” Wibert said. “We’re the second-fastest growing city in America three out of four years but not the second-fastest growing police department.”

According to Wibert, a 2016 study conducted by the city of New Braunfels indicated the police department was severely understaffed during its busiest times—typically from 11 a.m.-8 p.m. The lack of personnel has caused the department to prioritize calls, Wibert said, which can leave New Braunfels residents waiting hours for an officer to respond to a minor crime.

The department responds to an average of 60,000 calls per year, and at times, primarily during evening and midnight shifts from 9 p.m.-6 a.m., it can take an officer 1.5 hours to respond to a call, especially if it is a minor crime, Wibert said.

Figures from the city of New Braunfels show the typical response time for the department is around six minutes for more serious crimes. A typical shift for the New Braunfels Police Department consists of six officers and supervisors, and that number regularly doubles during overlap periods between evening and midnight shifts from 9 p.m.-2 a.m.

To continue combating population growth, Wibert said, the department is seeking to almost double the number of officers on a typical shift from seven to 12 and increase the number of officers working the evening-midnight overlap from 12 to 18 within the next two years.

When Wibert joined the NBPD in 2010, the department had 100 sworn officers, Wibert said.

The department now has 140 sworn police officers as of December 2019, but the ideal number of officers for the department continues to grow, according to Wibert.

“We’re heading in the right direction,” Wibert said. “The ideal number three years ago was 160 officers, so we still have a ways to go, but most police departments have not been able to add 40 officers in just a few years.”

Help from the city

Reflected in the city’s budget for the past several years, public safety improvements have been on the radar for New Braunfels City Council.

According to figures from the city of New Braunfels, total expenditures on public safety will hit the $40 million mark for the first time during fiscal year 2019-20.

During the same year, data from the city indicates that funding for the New Braunfels Fire Department will hit a high of $19.3 million, with more than 90% of funds dedicated to employee expenditures, and NBPD funding will reach a high of $20.7 million after increasing by more than $1 million each of the last four years.

“Just look at the number of officers we were able to fund as part of the plan for city services, which is one goal we worked on,” said Mayor Barron Casteel upon adoption of the fiscal year 2019-20 city budget in September.

Figures from the city of New Braunfels show that more than 54% of the total city budget for fiscal year 2019-20 is dedicated toward public safety expenditures, such as the addition of four NBPD officers.

Meanwhile, the number of fire department full-time personnel has remained relatively stagnant in recent years.

The New Braunfels Fire Department totaled 134 full-time employees in 2015 and added three new employees in the three years after, according to data from the city.

NBFD responds to more than 8,000 calls for service per year, and of those calls 80% are related to emergency and medical issues, and 20% are for fire suppression. The NBFD has six stations and 135 firefighters and paramedics on staff, officials said.

Comal and Guadalupe Counties

Experiencing similar growth to New Braunfels, Comal and Guadalupe Counties will both surpass 150,000 residents by 2020. U.S. census data indicates 90% growth for Comal County and 84% growth for Guadalupe County since 2010, and county sheriff’s offices are in the process of strengthening their resources.

The Comal County jail project, a $76 million endeavor approved by voters as a 2015 bond, is expected to be completed by spring 2020. It will increase the county’s inmate capacity from 337 to 583 total beds with additional room for future expansion to 900 inmates.

Upgrades from the current jail, initially built in 1985 to hold 144 inmates, include a second-floor control room overlooking housing units and exercise yards that will be controlled by patrolling corrections officers.

For Guadalupe County, which will soon surpass 190,000 residents, the resources that are available are sometimes stretched thin Sheriff Arnold Zwicke said.

“But we’re making it work with what we’ve got,” Zwicke said. “We’re in pretty good shape, and we’ve been fortunate that with the population explosion in Guadalupe County the commissioners court has helped us to keep up.”

When Zwicke started with the Guadalupe County Sheriff’s Department 28 years ago, he was one of 21 deputies and the county had a population of 59,000, he said. After 19 years as chief, Zwicke operates a department with 110 deputy positions. To adequately meet the needs of the county, the department could use an additional 10 patrol deputies and three investigators, he said.

“We’ve got guys here that do more than one job,” Zwicke said. “They’re doing a lot of double duty. We could use a few more to keep up with the cases.”

At current max capacity, Guadalupe County will break ground on a 22,000-square-foot expansion to the sheriff’s office in 2020, which will leave 2,500 square feet for future expansion, Zwicke said. The project will relocate dispatch and administration offices and provide dedicated offices for a number of departments, such as investigators, narcotics and inmate transports.

“It gets a little crowded in there,” Zwicke said. “We’re no doubt growing.”

Infrastructure improvements

Along with county projects, one area in which both city departments have seen growth is infrastructure.

Due to the passage of the 2019 bond by New Braunfels voters, NBPD will move into its first comprehensive police headquarters building after conducting operations at its current location since 1998.

The new headquarters will cost north of $36 million and will replace all current facilities, which have been plagued by electrical issues and a lack of space, Wibert said. The new headquarters will feature enough office space to house all NBPD divisions, training rooms, evidence storage for more than 50,000 pieces of evidence and a vehicle maintenance bay.

“The current building is one of our biggest challenges,” said Wibert, who joked about sharing the space with a colony of bats for a short time. “We’re crammed in like sardines, and some people don’t have offices. That aspect alone—being able to spread out—will enhance people’s work performance and quality of life.”

The 2019 bond will also dedicate more than $13 million to the construction of two new NBFD fire stations that will replace Fire Station No. 2 and Fire Station No. 3.

Built in 1975, Fire Station No. 2 will be upgraded at a cost of $7.3 million. Once complete, the new station will house an additional six firefighters, up to 11 total; four separate emergency apparatuses, such as an engine company and an ambulance; living quarters; a kitchen; and a gym.

A new Fire Station No. 3 will replace the existing facility constructed in 1981. Approved in the 2019 bond for a cost of $6.7 million, the new Fire Station No. 3 will provide modern living and kitchen facilities for up to six firefighters and will house up to three emergency apparatuses.

“Every dollar is budgeted, and the vast majority of the budget goes into our people,” Wibert said about the city’s spending on emergency services. “We need more people, but the city is doing its part. We are in a pretty good place, and things are happening in the right direction from pay to staffing to new buildings.”
By Ian Pribanic

Ian Pribanic covers city government, transportation, business and education news for Community Impact Newspaper in the Keller-Roanoke-Northeast Fort Worth areas. A Washington D.C. native and University of North Texas graduate, Ian was previously an editor for papers in Oklahoma, West Texas and for Community Impact in New Braunfels.


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