Burnet County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Chris Jett’s patrol unit comes with a radio and computer technology that allow him and deputies to quickly communicate with dispatch and other law enforcement officers. The cost of a deputy includes a salary as well as equipment, protective and radio gear, and weapons. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton
Burnet County Sheriff Calvin Boyd is a big proponent of proactive law enforcement, but with his patrol deputies stretched thin, it’s difficult to do.
“Our guys are basically running from call to call,” he explained. “So they don’t have a lot of time for what I call proactive law enforcement things like traffic stops and just driving through neighborhoods. People love to see the deputies come through their neighborhoods.”
The sheriff’s office has a hard time covering unincorporated portions of Burnet County with, if it’s lucky, four deputies and two sergeants on duty at a time. Boyd has a sergeant and two patrol deputies assigned to the northern half of the county and another team in the southern part.
“That’s the ideal situation, but we don’t often have an ideal situation,” he pointed out.
Like many first responder agencies, the sheriff’s office is dealing with staffing issues. Currently, it has about 25 patrol deputies.
“I’m really probably 12 down,” Boyd said. “That would be in a perfect world.”
He realizes, however, this isn’t a perfect world. During the latest Burnet County budget process, the sheriff asked the Commissioners Court to fund eight new patrol deputy positions. They agreed to four.
Boyd understands the county’s budget might only have enough for four, but as he watches his deputies push themselves during regular shifts and overtime, he believes more patrol positions would alleviate the demand on his current officers and provide a better service to taxpayers.
Hiring deputies isn’t as easy as hanging out a help wanted sign. Like other first responders such as firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics, deputies must undergo specific training, even if they have a college degree.
“We’re not better than other employers, we’re just different,” Boyd said. “I can’t just hire someone and put them on the street tomorrow. They need to be licensed, and then they have to go through our training.”
Large law enforcement agencies such as the Texas Department of Public Safety or big cities like Austin and Houston have their own, self-funded academies. Officers or deputies looking for positions in smaller agencies such as the Burnet County Sheriff’s Office often have to attend an accredited law enforcement academy on their own dime. Fees can easily top more than $5,000.
In addition, an academy could require more than 900 hours of training, and prospective officers might have to hold down jobs during classes.
“So they have to go through a process most people don’t want to go through. So, right away, you’re looking at a limited number of people who want to do this,” Boyd said. “Today, there’s just not as many people who even want to go into law enforcement.”
After completing academy training and passing state licensing requirements, new law enforcement officers must then undergo training at the agency that hires them. For a new BCSO patrol deputy, this could mean another six months to a year of field training before they’re allowed to patrol on their own.
“The time and commitment it takes to become a deputy is quite a bit,” Boyd said.
The sheriff often has to compete with other agencies for qualified and quality applicants. With Burnet County nestled against Williamson and Travis counties to the east and Coryell County to the northeast, salaries can and do come into play.
Burnet County is mostly rural with a more limited tax base than its neighbors. It relies almost solely on property taxes to fund its budget. Cities within it and in nearby counties have sales-tax revenues to support them.
“Right now, a field deputy for us starts out around $52,000 and $53,000 with a master (deputy) in the $60,000 to $63,000 range. In Leander (Police Department), they’re starting around more than ours, and they can max out around $80,000. Our deputies max out just over $60,000.”
Under the 2021-22 Burnet County budget, a Deputy I has a salary of $53,617.20, while a Deputy II is at $56,369.04. The county budgets $59,186.40 to $60,980.43 for a Deputy III position based on years of experience. Deputy IV starts at $61,938.43 to $63,814.82.
In the Leander Police Department, based on the city’s 2020-21 budget, a Patrol Officer I salary range is $58,240 to $76,876.80. As their grade increases to Patrol Officer II, their salary ranges from $61,713.60 to $76,876.60. A Patrol Officer III in Leander can draw a salary of $65,936 to $82,180.80.
The city is putting a 4 percent merit raise for its officers in its upcoming budget.
In Cedar Park, a probationary officer under the 2021-22 budget earns $62,388. The top end of the Cedar Park Police Department salary range for an officer is $91,547. This doesn’t include those with additional rank such as detectives, sergeants, lieutenants, and commanders.
The four new BCSO deputy positions are budgeted as Deputy II with a starting salary of $53,369.04. Once the benefits are added in, it comes to about $80,000.
On the budgetary side, it’s not just about salary and benefits. Outfitting a deputy for a newly created position requires additional county expenses.
According to the Burnet County Auditor’s Office, a patrol vehicle (based on 2021 numbers) costs $64,000. Then, there’s the uniform and protective vest (about $2,165), phone and radio equipment ($6,600), and TASER/weapon ($3,275).
Add it all up and it comes in at $159,404 for a Deputy III and $156,404 for a Deputy II.
Those costs aren’t recurring, but it demonstrates what county officials must balance while considering a new deputy position against the impact on the budget.
“I get it that the initial costs are higher than if you added a spot in some other departments,” Boyd said.
However, he looks at new deputy positions as an investment. As his current patrol deputies cover their regular shifts, they often work overtime to fill gaps due to illnesses, vacations, or other circumstances. The sheriff’s office strategically uses its overtime allotments, but Boyd said it only has so much. And even if overtime were unlimited, the sheriff couldn’t ask more from his current deputies than he already has.
“They’re running hard already,” Boyd said. The office has watched its calls for service jump more than 17 percent since August 2017. “They’re working a lot of overtime as it is, and it’s showing.”
Adding new patrol deputy positions would take some of the pressure off of current staff and help curtail turnover and burnout, Boyd said.
A bump in pay wouldn’t hurt either.
“I think it’s cheaper to pay them a bit more and keep them then to continuously go through the process of hiring new deputies. I don’t expect our guys to max out at $80,000. Our county just doesn’t have the budget for that,” Boyd said. “If you consider the cost of recruiting, background checks, and field training that comes with hiring a new deputy, even an experienced one, I think the best thing we can do is try to keep them. That’s good for us, the county, and especially the residents.”
In the end, budgeting for new positions and additional pay is out of his hands. Boyd knows the Commissioners Court has only so much to dole out. He’s just looking out for his deputies and the residents they serve the best he can.
And one thing he sees is his staff’s commitment.
“During the pandemic, it has been an inspiration to watch the men and women of the Burnet County (Sheriff’s) Office work. They have had to work long hours and sometimes multiple shifts because we are understaffed,” Boyd added. “I could not be prouder of the job they have done.”