July 10, 2007
County bonds and staffing issues

I've blogged before about a proposed $900 million county bond package that would go towards various courthouse/jail/family law projects. One of my concerns has been that the underlying issue of a serious guard shortage at the county jail needs to be addressed for this to make any sense at all. So I'm glad to see that the issue is being discussed, though I'm still not sure it's being addressed.

For years, Harris County officials have been criticized for failing to hire enough guards to keep their jails adequately staffed -- a problem that has led to crowding and reprimands by state authorities that monitor jail conditions.

Those same problems were noted in a report in May by the county's Public Infrastructure Department in preparation for a $900 million bond proposal -- the largest in the county's history -- that is expected to be placed before voters in November.

More than $250 million of it would be earmarked for the construction of a new inmate-processing center and a minimum-security jail. The report states that, after construction, unused space would be available for possible use by other law enforcement agencies.

"To achieve leased-capacity benefits, the HCSO must be able to staff the positions needed to operate any leasable capacity," the report states, referring to the Harris County Sheriff's Office. "Current staffing shortages highlight the importance of this assumption."

For years, Sgt. Richard Newby, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, has been critical of the staffing shortage. And he said the sheriff's office, which operates the jails, is still relying on massive amounts of overtime to staff the detention space it has now.

"The reality is that it's hard to hire a lot of people for this type of job, and we have a lot of vacancies," Newby said.

So, will any of this bond money go towards hiring and/or retaining jail staff? Or, since that's not really an appropriate funding vehicle, is Commissioners Court going to do anything about it? I still can't tell. Hell, I still can't tell if the end result of all this will be more jail space. More details would be very nice.

What I can tell is that we're still not having a serious discussion about the many ways that our county jail population can be reduced, which would not only be largely free to do but would also reduce our long-term costs and obviate the need for at least some of this bond debt. Why we're not having that discussion, well, that I can't tell.

Some fun facts about how we're dealing with the guard shortage:

The county spent about $18 million in overtime pay for jailers during the past fiscal year to reach that staffing goal. Last year, the county dedicated $22 million for hiring of 160 new guards, and raising starting annual pay for jailers by 15 percent to $32,200. Currently, 563 civilian detention officers and 680 deputies are assigned to the jail, according the HCSO.

Nevertheless, the sheriff's office continues to hemorrhage money through overtime payments. According to Newby, most jail guards are working at least two double shifts a week. In the first four months of the county's current fiscal year, the sheriff's office has already spent more than $6 million on overtime at the jail -- more than two-thirds of its dedicated overtime budget. If the overtime-spending trend continues, it would top last year's amount.

Other staffing problems are also looming. This week, the jail will lose 80 civilian guards. They are becoming part of the sheriff's office's next cadet academy class.

Many of the new hires have been offset by retirement, which may continue to hit the HCSO over the next two years, with approximately 180 guards and deputies soon becoming eligible for retirement, according to Newby.

I hear an awful lot about the staffing and overtime issues at HPD. For some reason, the same problems within the Harris County Sheriff's Department doesn't get nearly the same level of attention. One wonders why that might be.

Newby said that even if the bond proposal passes, the new jail space would not be available immediately -- which he says is "a good thing."

"Because if they did just pop up overnight," he said, "there's no way we could staff them with our current problems."

I don't see that changing any time soon.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 10, 2007 to Local politics

I hear an awful lot about the staffing and overtime issues at HPD. For some reason, the same problems within the Harris County Sheriff's Department doesn't get nearly the same level of attention. One wonders why that might be.

The Chron devotes surprisingly few resources to the Harris County political beat, so one reason is simply that the beat is undercovered by the area's major daily of record.

That said, I suspect it's probably the case that the county policing department in major metro areas gets far less coverage than the municipal police department in most areas. Maricopa County in Arizona may be an exception just because of the high-profile sheriff, but no others come right to mind.

Posted by: Kevin Whited on July 16, 2007 7:41 AM

So much to comment on from Kevin's observation (as well as what he overlooks).

1. Maybe it's just me, but one of the things I read into Kuff's comment on "... why that might be" wasn't just aimed at the Chronicle. I'm still left wondering why it is that Republican bloggers like Kevin and others still only manage to see the ills of HPD's retirement situation as reflective of mismanagement by whomever the current mayor and police chief are (assuming their Democrat, of course) and simply refuse to share any similar complaints since it applies to Republican-run county government.

2. It could be that one point Kevin is making is that even Republican bloggers' own coverage is a reflection of the reporting that goes on in the Chron. So if it's assumed that the Chron covers City Hall with better insight than they cover Harris County, doesn't this fact sorta chip away into the borrowed cliche of the Chron being "Mrs. White"?

It sounds entirely reasonable that if the COH coverage in the Chron were as favorable as our Republican friends suggest, that the negative case against Democrats in City Government would have to be found elsewhere?

3. One central fallacy in Kevin's comment. Political coverage isn't the same as covering local government. Matt Stiles doesn't cover the same beat as Kristen Mack. The Chron's political coverage is horrid on all counts. But to be fair, there's no economic factor that's going to alleviate that through staff resources. Quality could still be worked on, but that's another argument.

And adding to the complexity, races throughout the county will be even more contested than in years past. Same number of Chron resources, more stories to cover.

4. The Chronicle isn't the only game in town. Last I checked, there were local television stations with active news departments.

And what of "hyper-local" bloggers? Are they not just as hyper-attentive to county government as they are of city government?

It may serve as a good test that certain Republican bloggers discover an interest in county government once there are Democrats elected to county offices. Much in the same way that certain Republican bloggers only discover the problems of Congress once Democrats took over the place. In a way, it's almost refreshing to see them wake up after 12 years of napping.

Posted by: Greg Wythe on July 16, 2007 9:51 AM