AUSTIN (KXAN) — Battling high corrections officer vacancies, Travis County commissioners may look at raising officer pay before the next budget.

On Tuesday, county commissioners asked county staff to bring back a budget adjustment proposal in 30 days to increase officer pay and also approved a yearlong extension of an overtime incentives program to encourage overtime use and retain employees.

Commissioners and county staff talked about the need to increase correctional officer pay to lower vacancies and compete with neighboring counties. The county reported 263 corrections officer vacancies in March 2023—a 129% increase from March 2022. There are also increased year-over-year vacancy numbers in the law enforcement and courthouse security departments.

The county spent $18 million on sheriff’s office overtime pay in fiscal year 2022. A number that was alarming for some county commissioners at the Tuesday meeting.

“Clearly, the vacancies are the real problem and I think we need to address that,” Commissioner Brigid Shea said. 

The county ranks eighth in corrections officer pay behind Williamson, Bastrop, Hays and other comparable Texas counties, according to Travis County. Travis pays ahead of Caldwell and Burnet counties. Sheriff Sally Hernandez said Travis County used to lead in pay, and it should be in the lead again. 

“It would be wonderful if we could do that mid-budget because every time someone does a pay increase at budget time…the county next to us does it also,” Hernandez said. 

County commissioners approved the overtime incentive program last July that gave some employees a $500 incentive when they work at least 24 overtime hours in a four-week month or 30 overtime hours in a five-week month. Employees get the payment in the next month.

The current program will continue for 12 months for $3.9 million. The program’s cost will total about $6.6 million. 

The initiative began after the sheriff’s office saw an increasing number of vacancies in the correctional facility starting in March 2022, city staff said. This led to a higher demand for overtime, and some people were more willing to commit to overtime than others. The goal was to spread the overtime burden out across the facilities and to keep employees in the county. 

Before the program began, 362 employees received overtime pay. After the program started, the number of employees working overtime increased to 474 employees on average per month. 

However, the program has not helped prevent vacancies, county staff said. Corrections vacancies increased from 115 vacancies in March 2022 to 263 vacancies in March 2023. In law enforcement jobs, vacancies increased from 23 in March 2022 to 34 in March 2023—a 48% increase. The county noted that about 30 corrections positions were added during this period 

Corrections vacancies are the most critical, from an operational standpoint, across the county, said Todd Osborn, an assistant director in the human resources department.

County staff said the jail population typically increases in the summer and may increase the need for overtime if vacancies continue at the current rate.

In addition, 150 inmates in the Travis County Jail are waiting for state mental health beds. That is costing the county 20 full-time employees, or 39,000 hours per year, to care for those inmates. 

“We do have the best mental health staffing as far as people,” Hernandez said. “We do not have the facility and it is not the place for people with mental illness.”

Hernandez said the sheriff’s office has explored ways to help and keep employees such as childcare help and mental health care. Other options discussed include adding pay steps for employees at the maximum step and moving inmates to other counties when the population limit is reached.