Cameron County sheriff decries lack of funding

Cameron County Sheriff Eric Garza took Commissioners Court and County Judge Eddie Trevino to task Thursday for reducing the number of deputies assigned to courthouse security and freezing jailer salaries, saying the moves amount to “de-funding the sheriff’s office.”

“Our detention officers and deputies are some of the most underpaid in the country and Commissioners Court refuses to give them a pay raise,” Garza said at a morning news conference. “The lack of a livable wage is causing our jail to be critically understaffed, even with our efforts to keep the inmate population down.”

The sheriff said Hidalgo County is paying detention officers from $35,000 to $37,000 annually and Bexar County in San Antonio $40,000, in addition to stipends for experience and having a degree, resulting in Cameron County being unable to retain jailers.

“We’re paying $30,000. You go to Bexar County, they’re paying $40,000 and $42,000, and giving $2,000 bonuses to have our people come and apply to be deputies in their county in San Antonio,” Garza said. “We can’t compete.”

Cameron County Sheriff Eric Garza explains to the assembled media the need for his department to stabilize their staff numbers Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022 during a press conference outside the Cameron County Sheriff’s Office. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Garza said the Texas Commission on Jail Standards requires the county to maintain a required ratio of jailers to inmates to protect both populations. Due to the lack of jailers, he said he had no choice but to stop housing federal inmates to stay in compliance and avoid being shut down.

He said Commissioners Court had reduced sheriff’s office staffing by 55 positions and cut the number of detention officers assigned to courthouse security from 15 to seven.

The sheriff’s department has been at the forefront of efforts to balance the county budget after Commissioners Court learned the department had dished out $1 million in overtime pay in addition to $1.9 million to feed inmates housed in the county’s jail facilities.

The $1.9 million to feed inmates was in part due to COVID-19. Before the pandemic jail trustees would help distribute inmate meals. After it struck, trustees were no longer allowed to do this.

“The Cameron County Sheriff’s Office and County Jail are here to serve and protect the community, not to be a revenue stream to supplement and balance the county budget,” Garza said Thursday. “We have tried many times to explain that if salaries are not increased we will never be properly staffed” and will not be able to compete with neighboring agencies to retain employees.

Cameron County Sheriff Eric Garza talks about the difficulty or retaining experienced jail staff Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, during a press conference outside the Cameron County Sheriff’s Office. Garza held the press conference in response to Cameron County Commissioners Court removing 55 jail, administrative and patrol positions from the next fiscal year. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Garza said his department asked Commissioners Court to unfreeze positions but was repeatedly denied, only to find out recently that the positions had been eliminated entirely.

“This was done in secret and without notification to us or the public,” Garza said. “De-funding law enforcement is not the answer to a budget deficit. Judge Eddie Trevino and the Commissioners Court deliberately reduced our staff without concern to the welfare of the community or the safety and security of our officers. Crime does not take a vacation and does not take into consideration any budget shortfall to stop or slow down their illicit behaviors.”

The sheriff said his office would continue to enforce the law and push back against any efforts to undercut the department.

“I was elected by the people of Cameron County to represent them,” Garza said. “This latest action by Commissioners Court to de-fund law enforcement … is about political power. …We will continue to fight for the safety and security of the citizens of Cameron County and will look at all legal options to protect the community.”