Gravy Train

In the first political tussle since her election, Sheriff Lupe Valdez appeared before a skeptical Dallas County Commissioners Court on Tuesday to talk about skyrocketing overtime costs in her department that brought jailers $15,000 to $35,000 in extra pay over the last six months. For the fiscal year, which ends in October, the Sheriff's Department is projected to pay $8.7 million in overtime costs, which would be more than twice as much as the previous year and $7 million over budget.

"Why are we doubling that when I thought we were doing a better job hiring?" asked Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher.

Valdez was short of concrete answers, offering vague, head-scratching responses such as "We are multifacet, going at this issue." She suggested the department look into creating a "best practice" assurance team, which most of the commissioners seemed to view with suspicion. Valdez also failed to detail what the department's policies are on overtime pay.

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Sheriff's Department

"I need to know what's being followed and how it is being granted and why," Commissioner Ken Mayfield said.

If the county commissioners seemed irritated with Valdez, they can't exactly shirk responsibility for the department's overtime problems. For years, as they squabbled with Valdez's predecessor Jim Bowles, they've underfunded the Sheriff's Department. As a result, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards has flunked the county jail system three years in a row largely because it does not have enough jailers. Mark Howard, a captain in the Sheriff's Department who answered most of the court's questions, explained that the jail has used overtime to meet the state's 48-1 inmate to jailer staffing ratio.

Last fall, the county commissioners gave Valdez a $5 million budget increase in part to hire more staffers. But when the sheriff boasted on Tuesday how the department has filled more than 100 vacancies since October, an incredulous Mayfield asked her why, if the department is hiring more people, did her overtime costs rise steadily?

"Under Sheriff Bowles it was the same deal: Where there are less vacancies, there is more overtime," Mayfield said.

After her presentation, Valdez told reporters that her department looks for dependable volunteers when it needs to fill overtime slots. It appears that she had a lot of willing help. In the first six months of the 2006 fiscal year, nearly 35 detention service officers made more than $15,000 each in overtime. One employee, Muriana Olugbode, worked 16-hour shifts for nearly six months straight, racking up $35,000 in extra pay, which is just a tad under her annual salary. That schedule would put her on pace to make more than $100,000 this year as a detention service officer. Asked if she was concerned about whether officers like Olugbode were at risk of fatigue, Valdez offered an interesting answer: "They come from a foreign country where a 16-hour day is normal."

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