While Tarrant County struggles to house inmates, the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office will receive an additional $2.2 million through Tarrant County’s proposed 2023 budget.
County officials hope the funding, which will target higher salaries for jail employees and new patrol officers, will ease some of the office’s staffing challenges. Tarrant County recently was forced to spend $18 million to house inmates in a private prison in Garza County.
The budget will allow the sheriff’s office to increase the annual salary for detention officers to $50,000. The county has 160 open positions at the jail; the office employs over 1,400 people.
The sheriff’s office and its employees perform an essential function for the county, said Commissioner Devan Allen, who represents parts of southeast Tarrant County. If the additional funding for the office is approved, the office should work to become more accountable to the commissioners court and the taxpayers, Allen said.
“With the sheriff’s department being such a major department, it certainly deserves in depth accountability, which quite frankly, I have yet to see with any consistency since I have joined the court,” Allen said.
Allen is not seeking reelection to her position on the commissioners court in November. She hopes the incoming court will ask for regular updates from the office, with numbers to back up any claims of progress.
“We need to take reports on what all is going on, how things are moving, what’s working and then also what’s not working,” Allen said.
“That’s gonna make us the highest paid detention staff in the state, which we’re hoping to use as a recruiting tool,” Sheriff Bill Waybourn said. Tarrant County’s starting annual salary is $44,538 currently. Full-time detention officers in Dallas receive an annual starting salary of $46,841.
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The Tarrant County Commissioners Court is scheduled to host a public hearing and vote on the 2023 budget at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 13, at the Tarrant County Administration Building, 100 East Weatherford Street, 5th Floor.
The commissioners court also plans to approve funding for seven additional positions in the sheriff’s office and a Lenco BearCat armored vehicle.
Tarrant County has been taking on increased costs at its jail to pay overtime to detention officers working, on average, 52 hours a week. The office is spending about 6,100 hours a week total in overtime.
“We need to do whatever we can to give them whatever relief we can, because we’re losing people,” County Judge Glen Whitley said.
Understaffing is taking a significant toll on detention officers, County Administrator G.K. Maenius said. The state requires the county to keep a ratio of one detention officer for every 48 prisoners. The county jail recently passed its state inspection.
“We have to be very, very careful that we continue to have a viable jail,” Maenius said.
Since announcing the pay increase, which starts in October, the office has already seen an uptick in applicants, Waybourn said. The hiring process takes about four months, so the jail population likely won’t see the effect of more officers until well into 2023, Waybourn said.
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The office also will use funds to broaden its recruiting efforts, looking to states like California and military bases across the country, Waybourn said.
The county will use federal funds, meant to help Tarrant County recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, to transfer 432 inmates. Last year, the county used $23.3 million from the same source to create a mental health diversion center. The center’s goal is to divert would-be inmates away from Tarrant County Jails.
“The last thing we want to do in the world we want to do is see that jail fill back up, after we move these prisoners out,” Whitley said. “I think the diversion center is keeping some people out of the jail … but there’s still a lot more we need to look at.
Part of the problem is the state’s prison system, Whitley said. There are about 755 inmates who should be in state prisons, he added.
“That’s 755 prisoners that the citizens of Tarrant County are paying for that belong to the state,” Whitley said. “We’re fixing to have to pay $18 million to a corporation in Garza County, as opposed to being able to spend that money here in Tarrant County.”
Sheriff’s budget increases funding for patrol officer, equipment
Tarrant County’s proposed budget funds over 70 new jobs across county office. The sheriff’s office is tied for the third most new positions in the 2023 budget, behind juvenile services and the medical examiner’s office.
Most of the seven positions in the sheriff’s office will be for patrol officers, Waybourn said. As Tarrant County grows, demand for patrol officers has increased, Waybourn said.
“This is something we have been wanting to do for probably about three years,” Waybourn said. They’re going to be able to take some burden off their fellow patrol officers …, and be able to number one, answer calls more swiftly and hopefully provide better service.”
Sheriff’s deputies patrol unincorporated areas of Tarrant County and two contract cities — Edgecliff Village and Haslet. The deputies act like any other police office in these areas, responding to calls, conducting traffic enforcement, investigating traffic accidents and reports of crime.
The commissioners court also approved $345,000 in funding for a BearCat armored vehicle. The vote fell along party lines, both Democratic commissioners Devan Allen and Roy Brooks voted against purchasing the Bearcat. Brooks represents southwest Tarrant County.
Allen voted against the allocation because she didn’t have enough information, she said. The county should have explored options to partner with another municipality to share their BearCat vehicle.
“It’s a considerable request, and one that certainly deserves to be thoroughly vetted and I did not see that that vetting had actually taken place,” Allen said.
This year, three Fort Worth City Council members voted against accepting a federal grant for a BearCat vehicle. The grant passed anyway, and now the city has three armored vehicles. The vehicle will allow deputies to do their job more safely, Waybourn said.
“My job is to absolutely use the best tools available for officer safety,” Waybourn said.
The BearCat will allow officers to have better cover, and approach a dangerous scene at much closer range, Waybourn said, pointing to a June incident that involved deputies exchanging fire with a suspect.
After requesting funding for the Bearcat, the sheriff spoke with commissioners about why the office needed the equipment. After hearing Dallas, Collin and Denton County have the same equipment, Whitley was convinced to support the funding.
“It makes it a lot safer for the officers who are out there delivering the warrant or trying to arrest the person,” Whitley said.
To fully address population growth and potential jail overcrowding the sheriff’s office will need more resources soon. The county will need to consider funding a new jail facility to cope with higher jail populations, a new training center and a new substation to patrol in far north Fort Worth, Waybourn said.
“Our jail capacity is 4,600 and we have 4,400 prisoners,” Waybourn said. We’re going to grow, it’s going to get bigger, and there’s going to be a need for more bed space.”
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.