5 percent cost of living proposed for JWC employees; sheriff wants raises for his staff

Mauricio Julian Cuellar Jr., Orange Grove Journal

Jim Wells County Commissioners announced a proposed five percent cost of living increase across the board for all county employees as part of their first budget workshop on Monday.

The discussions on Monday centered on the subject of salary for two of the largest budgeted areas, the Justices of the Peace and the Sheriff's Department.

When her turn was called, Pct. 4 Justice of the Peace Sylvia Johnson acknowledged she was currently utilizing the grievance process to seek a $5,000 increase in her proposed salary of $27,895.

The grievance committee is the organization responsible for holding hearings on salary grievances for county employees. Her meeting with the committee is scheduled for Sept. 5.

Pct. 5 JP Luz Paiz used her time before the court to publicly air her disagreement with her current salary, and requested an increase of $5,000, to be comparable to the salary of Pct. 6 JP Juan Rodriguez.

Paiz's proposed salary for 2008 is $42,466, while Rodriguez is at $47,481. Both Paiz and Rodriguez, along with their formal JP duties, hold truancy court for the county - Paiz, with the students and parents of Orange Grove ISD, and Rodriguez with the students and parents of Premont and Alice ISDs.

"Isn't that request more appropriate in the grievance process?" Commissioner Zenaida Sanchez asked of Paiz after her request to the court.

Paiz said she had twice tried to go before the grievance committee, and was twice referred back to the commissioner's court on the issue of her salary. She said her court and Rodriguez's court are neck-and-neck in terms of workload and monetary amounts brought in.

"Rodriguez and I have always been more than equal," Paiz said.

Rodriguez said afterward that as far as collections, the two offices were about the same. As far as his truancy work, Rodriguez said that for AISD, between March 2006 and June 2007, he had 580 cases come before him. He said that was a high number.

"We're still working on Alice, but I'm not about to give up," Rodriguez said.

Sheriff Oscar Lopez also came to the court with salary concerns for his deputies, correctional officers and communications staff because of continued turnover in his department to other area law enforcement agencies, including the Alice Police Department. For those three classifications, Lopez proposed a budget increase of $163,000 in salaries overall, which would come to close to $200,000 with fringe benefits, such as insurance.

Lopez asked commissioners to raise correctional officers' salaries from $18,903 to $22,500, which includes the proposed five percent raise. For communication personnel, Lopez asked they be raised from $16,480 to $20,000 and his deputies would increase from the starting salary of $22,500 to $26,000.

Lopez said the department puts nearly $3,000 worth of training into its officers, just to have them leave to other departments. He said APD begins their officers at nearly $10,000 higher than at the county, and said his department could not compete with that at the current salaries. Lopez said he is losing an increasing number of deputies to APD.

Commissioner Javier Garcia said something needed to be done about the salaries.

"We've stayed behind too many years," Garcia said.

Other than the salary requests for his employees, Lopez said his department had no other requests.