Swift cuts leave the proposed county budget balanced

PRESIDIO COUNTY – County commissioners transformed an $84,629 deficit into an almost $10,000 surplus at a 2019-2020 budget workshop last Thursday, even managing to add a 3% raise across the board for county employees.

Commissioners made their largest cuts by slashing the proposed Road and Bridge department budget, along with denying the district attorney’s request for an additional $40,000 in funds for the new fiscal year.

However, before the court began its deep cuts, commissioners added budget line items that pushed the deficit even further.

Judge David Beebe, Justice of the Peace of Precinct 1, made his annual request for a part time helper in his office and this time commissioners granted it.

Beebe has taken on the additional role of registrar this year, and will register birth and death certificates for the county. Commissioner Brenda Bentley explained, “Typically, county clerks take registrar, but they’re not legally required. [County Clerk Virginia Pallarez] says she’s not game for it right now –– he took that upon himself, stepped up to do it and did the training.”

The precinct 1 Justice of the Peace’s office brings in half a million dollars in revenue each year and to reassure the court, Beebe said the additional employee’s salary would more than make up for itself because they would bring in additional revenues.

Judge Guevara, who has previously held the Justice of the Peace seat knew that the office today has a huge administrative burden to take phone calls, payments, oversee civil court and issue warrants for unpaid tickets.

The court set pay at $11 an hour, though Beebe had asked for a higher wage since the position lacks benefits.

Marfa City Councilmembers Yoseff Ben-Yehuda and Buck Johnston attended the Thursday meeting to ask the county to increase its contributions to the Marfa EMS department, which services county residents. Backing up their request, Ben-Yehuda explained that “mile for mile” Marfa’s EMS travels almost the exact same distance within city limits as it does in the unincorporated county.

The EMS budget costs $571,000 and receives $220,000 in revenue, including a yearly contribution from the county of $36,000. The Marfa council members asked that the $36,000 be increased to $45,000 this coming year. “The city is spending money from our city taxpayers to fund county services,” Ben-Yehuda explained bluntly.

Judge Cinderela Guevara acknowledged the challenges Marfa EMS faced and said that even as EMS costs have grown, the county hasn’t increased their contribution in 15 years. Though the budget was currently sitting at a deficit, Guevara still wanted to add the $9,000 increase for EMS and cut somewhere else instead.

Commissioner Eloy Aranda was also outspoken in his support for the increase. “Emergency services has always been number one to me because you’re talking about people’s lives.” Commissioners voted together to give $45,000 to Marfa EMS in 2019-2020. The county also contributes $100,000 a year to the Presidio EMS department, which routinely travels almost 100 miles in one direction to reach the nearest hospital in Alpine.

Commissioners also reaffirmed the addition of two additional positions to the jail’s budget for one sergeant and one corporal. The jail generates significant revenue for the jail fund by accepting federal inmates from the U.S. Marshals Service, which pays per inmate, per night. The county historically has in the past few years relied on the jail fund, moving money from it into its other funds to cover expenses.

County Auditor Patty Roach told commissioners they needed to start making cuts to the deficit, but also talk about giving raises. The $84,000 deficit and the cost of 3% raises across the board, totaling $85,661, would only drive the county further from a balanced budget.

The county has previously covered deficits by pulling from the general fund reserves and the jail fund, but she warned that this action would have graver consequences starting next year. New Texas legislation has instituted a 3.5% revenue cap, reducing it from the current 8%. If the county exceeded that percentage tax increase, it would trigger an automatic election where the public could vote down the tax increase.

Roach warned the commissioners that pulling money out of reserves is “scarier and scarier” because the county will struggle going forward to build up its financial reserves, due to the revenue cap. Jail reserves also took a hit because the jail took no inmates for the majority of the 2018-2019 fiscal year due to expensive and necessary renovations.

“I would not recommend pulling anything out of the jail reserves, they’re too low. They need to build up,” Roach added. Judge Guevara applauded the county for holding onto the $500,000 income they received from the TransPecos pipeline.

Judge Guevara asked if the district attorney’s request for an additional $40,000 was included in the $84,000 deficit. As Roach responded yes, Guevara said, Well that’s out of the question.” Quickly subtracting it out, the judge stated, “So we’re at a $44,000 deficit.”

Swiftly, commissioners agreed with the judge and voted down the DA’s request. Though the office had generally stated expenses would be for office training, office rent, trash and an intake clerk, it was not expressly tied to the $76,000 total proposed for the new fiscal year.

Roach spoke with Pecos County and examined the budget of Brewster County and said neither were increasing their DA budgets this year. Presidio shares the cost of DA Sandy Wilson’s office with Pecos, Brewster and Jeff Davis Counties.

“My feeling about this is this increase is only being requested of Presidio County, and it doubles our contribution,” Roach said.

With the deficit reduced to around $44,000, Roach directed the county’s attention to the Road and Bridge department, which had proposed increasing its budget by $145,974.75 going into the new fiscal year. Head of the department, Ruben Carrasco, easily agreed to remove some major costs, cutting $25,000 for a motor grader, $35,000 for vehicles and $20,000 for the forthcoming shop space in Marfa.

Suddenly, the county was seeing a surplus in the budget.

Cynthia Ramirez, chief appraiser for Presidio County arrived to discuss $10,870 that the Appraisal District currently held. Each year, some funds are returned to the taxing entities, unless the entity votes to allow the Appraisal District to keep it.

Ramirez said her office’s computers were breaking and the replacement cost would be $9,000. Unfunded mandates from the state would also require them to add new data to their website and her appraisal vehicle needed new tires.

Roach reminded commissioners they were only $9,500 from being able to afford 3% raises for all county employees, other than the newly added positions and a few specific exceptions.

Commissioner Buddy Knight pointed out that the Appraisal District’s staff got 5% raises last year. Commissioner Bentley agreed that the appraisal district money should be used to help the county give raises this time around.

“They get raises every year,” County Clerk Pallarez said, and Bentley continued the thought, saying, “and sometimes we hold back.”

“They do get 5% every year,” Knight said, opting to “take care” of the county employee raises instead. Commissioners voted to keep the Presidio County Appraisal District funds.

Roach noted that the surplus could be increased by adding to the Justice of the Peace Precinct 1’s projected revenues, since the new office employee’s help would increase funds coming in from fines and fees. A round of approval from commissioners came, and suddenly, the surplus was sitting at $72,320.

“The people who work more hours should see more in their pocket compared to people who work part time,” Roach said, advocating for the 3% raises to be prorated based on employees’ work hours. Commissioners agreed, and unanimously passed a 3% raise. The raise reduced the surplus to around $10,000 according to Roach.

Judge Guevara said the raise “may be the only thing we see for a while,” referencing the belt tightening that the 3.5% revenue cap will bring next year.

Auditor Roach told commissioners, who were rounding out the fourth hour of the budget workshop, “I’m happy, I’m done.” One last note from the auditor was that the County Attorney Rod Ponton had requested $4,800 in his pretrial diversion budget to cover his office expense.

Judge Guevara quashed the request. “We can’t do that, because it’s his residence. I don’t think it would be legal at all.”

Bentley added that even if it was legal, she believed Ponton “said he would take care of that, we’d never have to see the cost” of the rent for his second office in Presidio. “Take it off. I knew that was gonna happen,” Bentley concluded.