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ODESSA — Sheriff Andrew Aguilar’s struggle with keeping the streets of his West Texas county safe is constant.
The Crane County sheriff makes do with four deputies, two supervisors and one chief. Two deputies are volunteers from the local academy. The county’s cash-strapped budget spreads his department thin protecting 5,000 residents over 785 square miles, he said.
A new law aimed at increasing pay within sheriff’s departments in rural Texas could help solve his staffing woes.
Senate Bill 22, sponsored by Muenster Republican Sen. Drew Springer, established a grant system that will boost rural law enforcement efforts by $330 million. The amount of money a county receives annually is determined by its population size. Once awarded, counties can spend the money on raising minimum salaries and purchasing new equipment. The law similarly puts aside funds for prosecutors' offices that are decided by the size of the jurisdiction.
“I think it’s one of the best bills to come out of Austin in a long time,” Aguilar said.
Before a county can use the money on gear, however, it must meet the minimum pay requirements for select law enforcement roles — sheriffs must earn $75,000, deputies $45,000, and jailers $40,000.
The state’s comptroller will review applications and monitor the disbursement and use of that money.
A raise in compensation could go a long way for departments attempting to hire and keep staff on board, said Gillespie County Sheriff Buddy Mills. He said the money could make them competitive with other law enforcement agencies offering work for higher pay.
Loyalty, Mills said, is rarely a reason for toughening out low wages.
“The ability to move across the state for work is pretty easy to do,” Mills said. “Having someone stay with you is really amazing.”
Sheriffs across the nation have struggled to keep their rank-and-file filled, a 2022 report by the U.S. Department of Justice found. The number of officers has remained stagnant in the last three decades. Sheriffs departments have tried filling that gap with civilians who perform administrative duties but don't make arrests.
Rural areas don’t have much choice. Smaller Texas counties rely on a much smaller tax base to fund their coffers, ultimately yielding only a fraction of what bigger cities boast.
“It’s not that they don’t want to pay them. They just don’t have the means to do it,” Springer said.
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