Comal County Sheriff Mark Reynolds remembers the old days, when law officers received far less than today.
“Comal County is always where I wanted to be — because we came to visit my grandparents during the summers,” he said. “I started my career in Nacogdoches County, and when I came here in 1990 the pay was a big difference.
“I went from having to live beyond my means — just to sleep and eat and have a mediocre apartment — to coming here with a salary of $19,211 a year, which was a lot more.”
Salaries and benefits have increased for all first-responders over the last three decades. In Comal County the average salary for a starting deputy increased from $26,484 in 2001 to $32,906 in 2006. Both lagged more than $4,000 behind New Braunfels police, where the starting pay totaled $37,114 in 2006.
That year, the county conducted a comprehensive study that significantly revised pay scales for all employees and separated law enforcement personnel into a special compensation category beginning in 2007, when starting CCSO pay increased to $34,239.
“We separated the classifications to try to better keep up with law enforcement pay,” County Judge Sherman Krause said. “It allowed us to make adjustments in various classifications that gave us the ability to keep up with law enforcement (compensation offered by) the cities of New Braunfels, San Marcos and Hays County.”
In 2020, a projected 345 commissioned officers — those carrying certifications — will serve in the sheriff’s department, jail, courthouse, fire marshal and constable’s offices. The county’s seven emergency services districts oversee fire and EMS operations within their jurisdictions.
County’s comprehensive changes
Jerri Hettinger, the county’s human relations director, worked with county Auditor Jessie Rahe in compiling the county’s new salary plan proposed for 2020. Most employees will receive pay hikes of 4% effective Jan. 1, with 4% raises and step level increases awarded every two years, on top of approved cost-of-living adjustments.
“We reviewed pay scales and positions from public and private entities in surrounding cities and counties,” Hettinger said. “We then asked departments for their thoughts on what we needed to include in order for us to compete in the market — we did all of that as part of our 2019 snapshot before moving ahead with the 2020 pay scale.”
All commissioned and non-commissioned positions, defined by essential functions and duties, are assigned slots in the revised pay charts.
Reynolds said he’s encouraged by the county’s proposal, as it comes in time to fend off competitors that are offering increased salaries to attract tenured officers.
“We are increasing salaries for licensed personnel and trying to get closer to where (applicants) will look at us when considering a new job,” he said, adding newcomers should consider all aspects not included in normal compensation packages — such as county allowances for vehicle use, free uniforms and protective equipment.
“Many don’t always think about those things,” he said. “The wear and tear and the gas to use their own vehicles to drive to and from work — that might not cost them anything but can save them between $10,000 and $15,000 a year.
“They have to ask if the agency pays for uniforms, pistols and gun belts — all can be quite expensive. We also provide protective vests that officers are responsible for purchasing in other counties. We also offer a pretty good medical plan and match in retirement funds.”
Hettinger said the county pays 100 percent of an individual employee’s medical insurance premiums and percentages of life insurance, short-term and long-term disability and employee assistance programs. Employees who deposit 7% of their pay into the county retirement plan become fully vested after eight years, when their deposits start receiving a 200 percent match by the county.
Reynolds said younger prospects entering the field don’t often consider the bigger picture.
“You don’t think of all of these when you’re younger and just beginning,” he said. “All I wanted back then were the keys to a patrol car.”
Differences tracking pay, benefits
The county’s pay scale hadn’t undergone revisions in regard to position pay equity since 2007. County commissioners annually approved employee cost of living adjustments (COLA), some combined with step level pay increases since 2011.
They approved combined step level and COLA increases totaling 5% for 2014, 2016 and 2017; COLA increases of 3% for 2019, 2018, 2015 and 2013; and a 1% COLA for 2011. There was no increase in either approved for 2012.
Throughout, commissioners annually approved selected wage and COLA adjustments totaling 8% or more to elevate highly-skilled county positions closer to market averages.
The county’s 2019 market analysis compared employee pay and benefits to similar entities in San Antonio’s latest wage-level report of surrounding cities and combined with comparative studies taken in Austin, Hays County, San Marcos and Midland. The findings went into the formula used to compile the county’s 2020 pay proposal.
However, then and now, compensation packages differ in various studies — which is why most entities can’t accurately calculate positions or percentages in market comparisons.
Tim Brown, a senior analyst with the Texas Association of Counties, said TAC only updates base salaries of elected county officials.
“Our survey only charts salaries, along with their allowances and supplements,” Brown said. “That’s because it’s almost impossible to chart everything.”
Calculating benefits on top of base pay makes it even harder, Brown said. He said firms such as Waters Consulting, the Dallas-based firm that conducted the county’s 2006 salary study, encountered problems in compiling comprehensive salary and benefits studies in some areas throughout the state.
“They never got a good response rate because they found it difficult to create a study for all employees,” he said. “A Deputy 1 in one county isn’t the same as a Deputy 1 in another county. “It was the same for corrections officers, clerks and GIS specialists. Their surveys eventually grew to more than 100 pages and became so big that most counties didn’t have time to fill them out.
“It’s extremely hard to compare salaries across counties — over the years I’ve seen more and more HR directors who localize their studies to get those comparisons,” he said. “I’m sure they know more that than I do. But as a data collector, I can say we don’t know the best way to go about it, either.”
Closer, but not there yet
CCSO Lt. Mark Long, president of the Comal County Deputy Sheriff’s Association said the county worked hard this year to correct the “significant” disparity between county pay and salaries offered in New Braunfels, San Marcos and Hays County.
A CCSO starting deputy that earned $47,050 in 2019 will earn $52,957 in 2020 under the new formula, which also will give newcomers pay that is commensurate with career years of service — which wasn’t often the case under the current step scale.
“Commissioners came up with a step plan that’s fair,” Long said. “Employees go to the next step and receive raises every two years, as long as they don’t get into trouble. This plan revises things in a way that reflects (an employee’s) total service.
“If it’s approved it will be a tremendous benefit for not only the sheriff’s office but all county employees — from those in the road department to the district attorney’s office — as all will be included in (pay and grade) steps according to years spent in those positions.”
Long said the new scale recognizes career experience — which benefits everybody.
“A first year sergeant will enter on one step and another with six years will receive credit for his experience,” he said. “While that was adjusted in some cases, it wasn’t always uniform. The new scale modernizes our pay system and gets us more on the level with other agencies in our market.”
Precinct 2 Commissioner Scott Haag, who served 28 years as a lawman and Department of Public Safety trooper before retiring in 2008, also said it’s a step in the right direction.
“I’m in favor of the whole thing — not just the law enforcement side of it but for all county employees,” he said. “We’re still working out all the kinks but I’m excited. It will give us some stability over the long term.
“Salaries have increased since I retired, and they should have in the last 11 years because they’ve been lagging for a long time. While we’re catching up, we still have some work to do.”
However, Haag said the proposal presents a dilemma. One is plugging in veteran employees from other agencies that could leapfrog county employees with the same experience. Another is easing the path for newly-elected officials to bring in their choice of staffers.
Reynolds confronted the latter after his election as sheriff in 2016. He sought to replace several command staffers with own preferences. He recalled problems getting experienced hires to fit into the county’s pay system. The 2020 revisions will allow the hiring of exempt employees for up to 8% over the starting step scale without commissioners court approval.
In 2017, just as commissioners were about to approve the county’s $93.4 million 2018 budget, Reynolds asked them to allow him to transfer $242,396 from his 2018 general fund to give his employees additional pay raises, with the general fund shortfall covered by the county’s share of federal forfeiture money.
“I didn’t want to jeopardize the entire budget, so we let it go,” Reynolds said. “But the court promised to come back and look at it, and now I’m glad they did.
“I want every county employee to have the same thing, but my concern is for the people who work for (CCSO) — many have worked here for quite a long time. This (new pay scale) makes everything right.”