AUSTIN, Texas – Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia is concerned about losing sheriff’s deputies and criminal investigators to the Department of Public Safety due to a proposed large pay increase for state troopers.
Garcia voiced his concerns when testifying at a Texas House homeland security and public safety committee hearing at the state Capitol in Austin on Wednesday. The hearing was held to consider House Bill 11, one of the top pieces of border security legislation under consideration this session.
Garcia said that overall he is in support of HB 11, authored by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, a Republican from Angleton and speaker pro tem.
“We understand the purpose of the bill. You are trying to stop the criminals that are coming over from Mexico into the U.S. at the border. In the process you are trying to increase the number of DPS officers to be there on the border,” Garcia said.
“We are going to be losing a lot of our (Sheriff’s deputy) officers. We are starting our deputy sheriffs at $37,000. DPS is going to start them off at $57,000. Right away we know we are going to be losing probably the best people we have in the force and they are going to become troopers. It is a very big concern for us.”
It would be hard for Hidalgo County to compete with salaries of this size, Garcia said, because already his county has the highest tax rate of any of the ten largest counties in Texas. He said this is despite the fact that taxes have not gone up for the last 13 years.
“The concern is the DPS officers that we presently have in our county are concentrating their efforts on DWIs, on traffic citations and on drug cases. The deputies that are leaving us are going to be the ones that are investigating our murder cases, our robbery cases, our assault cases, all our serious violent crime cases. That is where the concern lies. It is a very real factor,” Garcia added.
Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra also testified at the committee hearing. He started out by pointing out that, according to federal law enforcement agencies, 53 percent of all “illegal crossers” in the nation enter the United States through Hidalgo County. This seemed to surprise some legislators and state Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, asked Guerra to repeat the statistic. “You have heard testimony from the director of DPS – 53 percent of all illegal crossers in the nation cross through Hidalgo County. So, it is very important for us to address this border security issue,” Guerra said.
Guerra said that while Hidalgo County had to pull out of Operation Strong Safety due to funding issues his department is “real excited” about HB 11. “I commend Speaker Pro Tem Bonner for taking the initiative and pushing this bill and allowing me a seat at the table to discuss some of the issues we have in our county,” Guerra said.
In his testimony, Guerra focused mostly on the proposed setting up of what is being referred to as the Texas Transnational Intelligence Center. Guerra said the plans are currently a work in progress and would be revised as the legislative session goes on. A provision to set up the TTIC is included in HB 11.
Initially, Guerra said, the TTIC was to be a data sharing exercise between local law enforcement agencies in the Rio Grande Valley. However, he said DPS Director Steve McCraw is a big supporter of the project and wants to participate.
“We are pretty excited (about the TTIC),” Guerra said. “It is going to be a local information center. He (McCraw) got pretty excited. He wants to be a part of it. We decided to go bigger with this. I am committed to it. The police chief of McAllen, Victor Rodriguez, is committed to this. Most of the bigger municipalities and our district attorney are also committed to the center. I have talked to our federal partners, the Border Patrol, and they are committed as well.”
Guerra said the initial plan was for each law enforcement agency along the border to report information on criminal activity in their jurisdiction to the TTIC. He said this would include information on kidnapping, home invasions, impersonation of law enforcement officers, etc.
“It is still a work in progress. It is still pretty fluid. We are going to look to our local reps. We are willing to take this on but we are going to need a lot of help with it,” Guerra said, adding that DPS Director McCraw has “got some good ideas” for the project.
Guerra was asked to elaborate on the TTIC and to point out that it was not just going to be a data collection exercise. He offered an example to explain how it would work.
“We had a criminal organization operating in Hidalgo County. I have got 21 local municipalities there. This organization was involved in home invasions, was involved in prostitution, was involved in drug smuggling; was involved in auto thefts. We had information on all the criminal elements this organization had,” Guerra testified.
“However, one DB had information just on the auto theft portion. We did not know they were working that auto theft. They had really good information. If we had had it at the time we would have been able to make the arrest of this individual before he absconded into Mexico. If we are able to have a center where we can bring all that information together and have real time information it helps us to a better job. We are able to share this information with all the law enforcement agencies that need it.”
Commander Joel Rivera, from the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, also testified in support of HB 11 at the House panel hearing. Rivera spoke briefly about the TTIC.
Bobby Villarreal, director of economic development for Judge Garcia, also testified in support of HB 11 at the House panel hearing. Villarreal focused on criminal activity in rural areas and on what economic develop leaders in the Valley thought about deployment of the National Guard on the border.
Referring back to Judge Garcia’s comments about the pay differential between DPS troopers and Sheriff’s deputies, Villarreal said: “The Brooks County sheriff tells me every day, it is great they (the state and federal government) send me over overtime money. I just don’t have anybody to do overtime.”
Villarreal testified that the greater McAllen area, including Mission and Pharr, is “very vibrant and safe.” He said the danger from transnational gangs is more of a threat in rural areas. In addition to working on economic development issues for Hidalgo County, Villarreal is an alderman in neighboring Brooks County. He said his brother is county commissioner for the Encino area of Brooks County, which sees a lot of human and drug smuggling.
“Don’t forget the counties adjacent to those on the border. Those rural areas have a lot of things going on,” Villarreal testified. “Living inside communities, you feel safe but when you go inside the rural areas it can get a little iffy. Some of these transnational gangs are going to the areas of least resistance. I would hope the rural areas could receive some support as well.”
Regarding the National Guard, Villarreal said: “Anecdotally, what we are seeing is a lot of our corporate managers that have manufacturing facilities in the Valley and the maquila industry… there has been concern about news stories. Every time they get a news story that the National Guard went down, many of them are holding down their expansions of the current facilities they have, which hurts us economically, less jobs created. It stagnates their operations.”
Villarreal added that economic developers are happy to see that a provision in HB 11 regarding the setting up of southbound checkpoints has now been turned into a study of the issue. “That is another area of concern that our economic developers had in talking to some of the manufacturers. They have ‘Just in Time’ manufacturing where that (southbound inspections) could impede their progress of sending their goods southbound into Mexico,” Villarreal said.