Rural law enforcement seeks funding support in legislative session’s final hours

“We will always support our men and women that are out there protecting our communities. Not only do they protect our communities, they have a commitment to be involved in the communities.
KBTX News 3 at Ten(Recurring)
Published: May. 29, 2023 at 5:25 PM CDT
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AUSTIN, Texas (KBTX) - As the 88th Texas Legislative Session draws to a close, law enforcement agencies in the state’s rural counties are hoping for increased attention and support from lawmakers. With their limited resources and funding challenges, rural law enforcement officers are urging the governor to pass two bills that could provide much-needed assistance.

One of the main proponents of these bills is Burleson County Pct 2. Constable Dennis Gaas, who has served more than three decades on the job. Gass testified before a legislative committee back in March in support of House Bill 1487, one of the two pieces of pending legislation.

Rural law enforcement officers like Gaas have a wide range of responsibilities, including serving as peace officers, issuing traffic citations, serving as a bailiff in JP Courts, executing warrants and civil papers along with administrative duties like budgets. However, despite their vital role, these agencies often struggle with limited funding.

“When I started out as constable in January of 1989, I had no budget. I was making $300 a month. And since then I’ve gone to the commissioners. I’ve been a kind of a pest, you might say. And today from having nothing, I’ve got an office now. I’ve got a patrol car, I’ve got equipment to work with. So it’s been a big change in the last 35 years,” Gaas said.

Gaas remains appreciative of his own circumstances, as some of his fellow constables lack even basic necessities. Many still rely on personal vehicles for official duties and must personally purchase the equipment they need to perform their jobs effectively. Consequently, their capabilities are severely restricted on a daily basis.

“In the state of Texas, 70% of the constables work in one or two-man departments with no staff. I’m a one-man department. I do have a part-time deputy that helps out every once in a while. But all the paperwork I do, cause I don’t have a clerk in my office,” Gaas Added.

Burleson County Precinct Two Constable Dennis Gaas
Burleson County Precinct Two Constable Dennis Gaas(KBTX)

Senate Bill 22 introduced by (R) District 30 Sen. Drew Springer establishes programs to provide state assistance for the salaries of sheriffs and their deputies and prosecutors in the 236 Texas counties with less than 300,000 people. However, constables are notably excluded from this bill. It was passed Monday.

SB 22 proposes granting up to $500,000 to counties with populations under 300,000 to enhance their law enforcement capabilities by hiring additional deputies. It also offers up to $250,000 to these counties for the purpose of recruiting personnel and acquiring resources for county prosecutors’ offices. The bill establishes a minimum salary of $45,000 for deputies employed through these grants.

“This measure ensures the safety of Texans, regardless of their location or travel destinations, by providing adequate law enforcement personnel and prosecutorial power to effectively combat criminal elements,” Representative Springer stated.

Out of the state’s 254 counties, only 18 have populations exceeding 300,000. Grant amounts would be adjusted based on county size, with larger counties receiving the full allocation and smaller counties with fewer than 10,000 residents receiving $275,000. Similarly, grants to prosecutors will be scaled according to population, ranging from $250,000 to $100,000 for the smallest counties in the state.

Gaas is hoping the grant would make hiring in constables’ offices more competitive with other law enforcement agencies that have more funding and resources.

“Constables can only do their job if they’ve got equipment to do it, and if they’ve got a salary that they can live off of. Senate Bill 22 is going to have a minimum salary for sheriffs at $75,000, probationary deputies at $50,000, and jailers, I think, at $40,000. So you’re looking at a young man or young lady just fresh out of the academy, starting out as a probationary officer at $50,000,” Gass said.

“You’ve got constables that have been in office for 10, 15 years, or 35 years like I am, and we’re making less than $30,000. That probationary deputy is learning the law enforcement aspect, which really doesn’t have anything to do with running administrative or budget items in their office, where we do. So to me, we need to be put a little higher in the standards on our salary,” Gaas added.

In a statement released on Monday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick weighed in on the passing of SB 22. Patrick emphasized that attracting individuals to these challenging rural law enforcement positions is already difficult, particularly considering the low salaries some elected sheriffs and their deputies receive.

“Due to the Biden Administration’s failure to perform their constitutional duty to secure the southern border, every law enforcement officer in Texas is now a border law enforcement officer in addition to their duties to serve their citizens. As I traveled rural Texas last fall, I was shocked at how little some of our rural sheriffs and their deputies were earning to cover thousands of square miles of territory in many cases. SB 22 is a priority of mine because it is difficult to find brave men and women to take these dangerous jobs in the first place, and some elected sheriffs only make just over $30,000 per year and their deputies make less than that. SB 22 represents the first time in Texas history that the state is assisting in funding law enforcement in rural counties, reaffirming our dedication to public safety.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ​
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ​(Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune)

On the other hand, House Bill 1487, introduced by (R) District 17 Representative Stan Gerdes, aims to bridge the gaps in Senate Bill 22 faced by rural law enforcement agencies, including constables.

The bill proposes the creation of a grant program to assist sheriff’s or constable’s offices in counties with populations under 275,000. The grants can be utilized for various purposes, including salaries, recruitment costs, equipment acquisition, and personnel training. The bill sets caps on grant amounts based on county population, ranging from $250,000 to $500,000. Agencies can apply for a grant once per fiscal year, and they must obtain written approval from the county commissioners’ court for the designated purpose. Any unspent grant money must be returned to the comptroller within two years of disbursement.

“We will always support our men and women that are out there protecting our communities. Not only do they protect our communities, they have a commitment to be involved in the communities,” said Gerdes.

“What we can do to help them and know that they’re going to be supported from the local community all the way up to the state house to the governor’s office is very important,” Gerdes added.

District 17 Representative Stan Gerdes
District 17 Representative Stan Gerdes(KBTX)

Both bills have gained bipartisan support and will now go through the final stages of the legislative process before potentially becoming law.