January 29, 2023

McLennan County jailers received a 10% pay increase, effective last Sunday, and every full-time county employee may get a 9% cost-of-living hike when the new fiscal year rolls around Oct. 1, officials said.

Faced with high turnover and low response to help-wanted ads, jail administrators lobbied McLennan County commissioners for relief in the form of pay raises and bonuses. They got the 10% pay boost they wanted, but not the incentive package that could have meant $5,000 more to new hires.

Starting jailers now make $47,281 per year once hired, up from $42,983, and jail corporals enjoy a jump from $49,476 to $54,424.

“This 10% increase was applied to the base pay of 258 employees actively holding a jailer or jailer corporal position at the McLennan County Jail,” Human Resources Director Ana Picazo said by email.

Commissioners also eliminated 40 jail positions chronically unfilled. The county has posted notices to fill another 60 jail staff vacancies.

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Jail Lt. David Ives recently appeared before commissioners to discuss hiring difficulties and working conditions that may discourage would-be applicants.

“Not only is pay an issue, but we’re talking about working weekends, holidays, nights in a less than ideal environment, with some of the worst people in the community. But we still have to provide care,” Ives said earlier this month.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said commissioners opted against incentives that would have awarded $2,500 upon graduating from the jail academy and $2,500 upon completing the first year of service. Anyone employed by the sheriff’s office in the past 24 months would not have qualified for the package.

“Rather than getting into all those nuances to attract people, we chose to increase base pay,” Felton said. “We’ll monitor this closely until the end of the year, hoping it will have the impact we thought it would.”

Commissioners on Thursday will hold a special meeting at which they may set a preliminary tax rate for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.

That budget likely will include a 9% across-the-board pay increase, a cost-of-living adjustment, for the nearly 1,100 full-time county employees, Felton said.

“One of our goals was to make up for the financial impact of inflation, and one way to do that is through COLAs. We will firm up the number Thursday, but we are looking at 9%,” Felton said. “Hiring a new person costs a lot of money, and turnover could interrupt our ability to carry out services to the community. We are talking about every full-time person getting a raise.”

He said commissioners are mindful that property owners countywide have recoiled at property valuations “that they thought were very high.”

Felton said commissioners believe the county’s financial health is such it can provide 9% COLAs and maintain an unassigned fund balance of 33% or more while approving a no-new-revenue tax rate. Commissioners also face spending $3.35 million correcting a budget shortfall related to the continuing Cameron Park Zoo expansion voters approved in 2019.

Once a $14.5 million undertaking, the county, city and Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society now face pledging another $3.35 million apiece to bring the project home by summer 2024.

“We’ve asked for public response, and what we’re getting is mixed,” Felton said. “The requesters may have a certain sense of urgency, but we will take everything into consideration, take a methodical, steady approach, which is what taxpayers want. But neither will we sit around, stretching out the process. We will make a decision in a timely fashion.”

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