Departments request half a million in raises at county budget workshop

PRESIDIO COUNTY – Commissioners pored over departmental budgets last Thursday. The County Jail, the Sheriff’s Office and Justice of the Peace Juanita Bishop defended their requests for budget increases in the fiscal year 2019-2020 in person, while other departments either maintained a steady budget from the previous year, or requested changes but did not appear at the meeting.

The county’s estimated net taxable value this year is $584,149,900, with a revenue increase estimated to be $224,355 higher than the previous year. Assuming a 90% collection rate, the tax revenue for 2019-2020 is estimated at $3,177,608. Tax contracts, court revenues, jail revenues and other incomes contribute to a higher total budget.

However, after departmental budget increase requests presented at the Thursday budget workshop, the county will face a $500,000 bill if they agreed to every requested increase.

“We’d be in the hole $500,000,” said County Auditor Patty Roach. “Some of this would be funded out of the jail fund, but that impact would be to take the jail reserve down to zero or close to it,” Roach warned.

Commissioner Brenda Bentley was distressed by that number, telling the departments in attendance, “If you ask for raises, it comes back out of your pocket. Look at this, half a million! You keep saying we saved money on OMB, but look you’re taking it away.”

Last year the commissioners abolished OMB, the Office of Management and Budget, claimed it was a cost saving measure, and then gave a 3% raise to all county employees except department heads and elected officials.

County Auditor Roach gave a foreboding reminder to commissioners that new legislation in Texas goes into effect in 2021 that will prevent the county from raising the effective tax rate higher than 3.5% without a mandatory election where citizens can reject the raise.

Currently, commissioners can go up to 8% on the effective rate before triggering a rollback election. If next year’s prohibitions lock commissioners out of generating higher tax revenues, they may need to go higher this year to compensate.

Auditor Roach explained, “The 3.5% cap in the future would mean the county probably couldn’t afford a 3% salary raise in 2022.” She expressed concern about their fund balance, because there will be less opportunity to build up their reserve balance in future years, making it even harder to increase the reserves for large future projects.

With all that information on the table, county departments began to make their cases for budget increases.

The jail’s proposed budget hoped to add a fourth corporal and a second sargeant to their ranks, give a raise for the jail administrator, and add a 3% raise for all other employees.

The county jail has been a large revenue driver in the county for years because the U.S. Marshall pays the county to house federal inmates. Though the jail budget is separate from the general county fund, revenues are often transferred from the jail to the county in order to cover budget needs.

Currently, they have eight jailers, which limits the number of people they are able to house and monitor. The jail’s capacity is 112 inmates, but because of Jail Standards restrictions on the inmate to jailer ratio, the jail can only currently accept 48 residents. Although they want more staff, the jail is currently budgeted for 12 jailers, but has only been able to staff eight of the 12 positions.

An increase in jail staff could increase revenues, which might prevent the jail from bottoming out their jail reserve fund, Commissioner Buddy Knight pointed out.

Judge Cinderela Guevara’s biggest concern with the jail was that jailers are currently working 12 hour shifts and then immediately going into transportation duty, driving as far as Pecos to take inmates to court and sometimes working 18 hours straight without sleep. “That’s a big safety issue, and we know our employees are at risk,” Guevara implored. “We need to do something in the budget; I want that addressed.”

Guevara supported staff expansion and raises for jailers because it would make the vacant positions more appealing and hopefully alleviate some of the stress the jailers are facing because of understaffing.

Justice of the Peace David Beebe has once again requested an additional part-time staffer for his office, which on its own draws in nearly half a million in revenue each year. Roughly 60% of that is retained by the county, according to the justice of the peace. Judge Beebe said his office is currently so overwhelmed that it is not able to go after “failure to appears,” when people skip their court dates. Though not in attendance, the additional staff request was thoroughly discussed by commissioners.

Commissioner Bentley began, “I will defend Judge Beebe; he’s asking for that part-timer because he’s taking on the registrar, and it will be necessary. It’s not just ‘give me somebody.’” Judge Beebe will be the county registrar who processes birth and death certificates, a duty most other counties relegate to the office of the county clerk. However, Presidio County Clerk Virginia Pallarez chose not to assume the responsibility and is not legally required to do so.

Beebe requested 20 hours a week at $14 an hour for the part-time employee, but Judge Bishop, the county’s other Justice of the Peace, spoke up to say she covers for Beebe “a lot,” and noted that his office has always had a larger budget than hers.

Bishop asked for a $1 per hour raise for her clerk, and a $5,000 flat raise for herself this year –– during her 10 year tenure as justice of the peace, Bishop has never received a raise. Commissioners did not reach a consensus on either justice of the peace budgets at the meeting.

County Attorney Rod Ponton was absent from the meeting, but his two budgets were briefly reviewed. After moving to a larger office in Presidio to accommodate his growing staff, Ponton has requested half of the rent on his new office building be paid by the Pretrial Diversion (PTD) Budget.

Commissioner Bentley bristled, saying Ponton had promised the county would never assume the cost of the new office, since he vacated the smaller one provided by the county. Commissioner Knight agreed, and the two asserted they would not agree to pay for the building’s rent.

The new office is also where Ponton claims to live, and commissioners hesitated to pay rent where someone also lives, and might be completing work for his various other public attorney positions and his private practice. Commissioners agreed to hold off on further conversation until Ponton was present.

PTD is a separate budget that is comprised of fees collected when someone is likely to be charged with an offense, but instead is charged a fine, given probation and the offense is kept off their record. Ponton uses prosecutorial discretion to decide which cases get PTD.

All fee revenues can only be used for the purposes of operating PTD, so Ponton pays 50% of his Presidio and Marfa staff’s salaries with PTD. Because of the income, he is able to maintain staff in both cities, which he feels is important because 75% of the county’s population lives in Presidio, but his office would normally only be in Marfa, an hour north.

“Our county attorney will not have the crime victims advocate anymore,” Guevara added. “He didn’t submit for the grant in time. There’s a strict timeline and there’s nothing that can be done.” She believes there was a misunderstanding about who needed to complete the grant paperwork.

The sheriff then defended his requested raises, noting that now dispatchers need two certifications, and saying that he hopes to give raises with each certification that is earned. In addition to that department’s requests, absent departments submitted higher budgets in the following ways. The tax office has asked for 5% raises, the County District Clerk wants one additional dollar per hour for all employees, and the golf course wants $3,000 more for the manager and $3 per hour more for employees.

The Facilities Department wants a $2 per hour raise, the Road and Bridge Department is asking for temporary workers to be raised from $9 to $12 an hour and wants a 5% raise for other staff.

Finally, the district attorney, an office that is paid by multiple counties, had requested a $40,000 budget increase. Judge Guevara asked someone from their office to attend, but they did not respond. However, Auditor Roach said Brewster County stated they were not asked to increase their contribution to the DA’s office and Pecos County would not be adding to the DA’s budget either. Auditor Roach felt the DA’s office was attempting to pass costs on to just our county. Commissioner Knight said that it had happened before.