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Bexar commissioner wants to break up the state of Sheriff’s union

Photo: Illustration by Chuck Kerr, License: N/A

Illustration by Chuck Kerr

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Still, the county can’t just unilaterally seize control of the jail. Ortiz would have to hand it over, something he’s unlikely to do, especially while the union stands. “I can’t just take jail operations from [Ortiz], but he can give them to me,” Wolff said with a smirk. “If [the union’s] standing in the way of that, then we can get rid of them,” he said, claiming he’s ready to lead a petition drive that would put repealing the union to a public vote. Wolff says he’s got more than enough support to reach the roughly 15,000 signatures needed to get the item on the ballot.

While the Bexar County Deputy Sheriffs Association won collective bargaining rights in 2006, union officials and the county have fought, unsuccessfully, for over two years to hammer out a new deal since the first contract ran out in 2009. The long fight has left a fair amount of bad blood simmering between Wolff and union leaders.

Last month, as part of his plan to cut 2011-2012 county spending by some $11 million, County Manager David Smith laid out plans to cut 128 jail positions through attrition, retirement, and shifts within the sheriff’s office, a plan Wolff heartily backs. While Ortiz has countered he can only handle losing 75 positions, Wolff claimed that at a recent lunch a top jail official told him it was the union that set the bar at 75. “That’s when I really started to get pissed off,” he said.

To further inflame tempers, with contract negotiations languishing the union last week filed two lawsuits against the county. One suit cites the county’s refusal to deduct money from paychecks that eventually flows into the union’s political action committee, something the county now contends is illegal. The second suit accuses the county of bargaining in bad faith. Sitting at his desk last week, waiving the lawsuit, Wolff said, “This is crap … If I wasn’t set on [the petition drive], I sure as hell am now.”

In his recommendation to cut jailers, Smith says inmate-reduction strategies at the county level have begun to pay off, citing steadily decreasing jail populations over the past three years. According to county stats, the jail, with a stated capacity of 4,596 inmates, topped 4,611 inmates in the summer of 2009, when inmate populations typically peak – jail administrators later admitted the intense overcrowding may have played a role in record number of jail suicides that year.

The population decreased to 4,137 in the summer of 2010, and this past summer topped out at 3,784 inmates.

Smith points out that despite the flux, the jail staffing has held steady at 930 detention officers. His plan, which would save the county over $4 million, is to staff the jail for a population of roughly 4,000, something that deeply worries the union. “The problem we’ve always had is that the jail population is not something you can control all the time,” said Hector Garcia, a union board member and an officer at the jail. “They’re not aware of the realities of the jail. … I challenge anyone who wants to go to the jail to come out here. I’ll take them on a tour, show officers who can’t even take bathroom breaks because we’re so stretched.” In its lawsuit, the union claims no self-respecting organization could agree to such cuts, saying the plan essentially asks for union negotiators to sell out their own members.

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