City of Presidio revisits retirement packages, utility rates

PRESIDIO — At Monday night’s regular meeting, Presidio City Council revisited a pair of complex financial topics: retirement packages for long-term city employees and rewriting ordinances that set water, sewer and sanitation rates. Council members took no action on either of these measures but led a fruitful discussion about the city’s priorities and future. 

At the last City Council meeting, held October 17, the council decided to raise the amount of money that the city pays into an employee’s retirement fund and took steps toward lowering the city’s retirement threshold for employees under 60 from 25 to 20 years of service. The city is currently paying into retirement benefits for seven employees. 

Some council members were confused by the process needed to adopt these measures — both were written as ordinances, which requires a public hearing followed by subsequent readings and a vote. The employer match was raised last meeting in a vote immediately after the public hearing on retirement packages ended and rolled over into a regular meeting, and the retirement age was approved as a first hearing. 

Arian Velázquez-Ornelas, the lone nay vote at the October 17 meeting, explained that she voted the way she did in order to give the council members more time to discuss. “I was really supporting it, but I wanted more for our employees,” she said. “I wanted to sit down with the finance department and really hash out these numbers.”

Council members opted not to include an updated service credit as part of the enhanced retirement benefits. The service credit is a feature of the city’s Texas Municipal Retirement System plan that increases benefits based on changes in salary or changes to the city’s retirement plans — like the ones adopted three weeks ago.

Monday night’s discussion was an attempt to give the council members a chance to revisit what some felt was a rushed vote. “We have some employees that have been with the city a long time and have pretty much dedicated their entire lives,” said City Administrator Pablo Rodriguez. “After the public hearing, I think some of us didn’t understand that we could provide some help to these employees retroactively, we thought it was just moving forward.” 

Rodriguez encouraged the council members to consider the issue from both a financial and an emotional standpoint. “The accounting side of me says let’s keep it as it is,” he said. “The human side says we need to take care of these employees. Is it going to make us penny pinch? Absolutely.”

Analysis by Malynda Richardson and Glorisel Muñiz of the city’s finance department suggested that adopting the updated service credit would require the city to pay triple what it is currently paying into retirement funds. The city currently has a surplus in its retirement accounts, but that surplus isn’t unlimited. “It’s going to take some belt-tightening to do it,” Richardson said. 

Mayor Pro Tempore John Razo expressed hesitation to adopt the service credit right away — council only has a few weeks to pass the measure before the end of the calendar year. He cited the ongoing project of overhauling the city’s finances as a reason to take caution. “It takes money to keep the city going,” he said. 

Adopting the service credit was also complicated by the fact that the fiscal year has already begun — a series of amendments would be needed to shoehorn it into this year’s budget. “The conservative approach is to keep things as they are and revisit next year,” Richardson said. Council ultimately decided to take that advice and wait until next summer’s budget-writing process to make a final decision. 

Another meaty financial topic covered at Monday’s meeting was the city’s water, sewer and sanitation service rates. Back in March, the city opted to raise water rates for customers using more than 2,000 gallons a month — part of a game of catch-up after five years of not raising rates at all.

The city’s rates are still well below the regional average, and they’ll stay that way. Rather than hike rates all at once, council is currently trying to rewrite city ordinances for all three utilities services to make them more comprehensive. The restructuring will hopefully make it easier for the city to take in the money it needs from its heaviest users without gouging the city’s elderly and lower-income customers

The bulk of the conversation centered around the city’s sanitation services. Finance Specialist Malynda Richardson explained that there were a lot of complicated scenarios missing from the city’s tiered rates for dumpster and other disposal services. “We want to keep rates as close to what they are as possible, while making them more detailed and transparent,” she said. 

Rodriguez also announced a piece of good news for the city’s landfill — Presidio was the recipient of a grant from the Rio Grande Council of Governments for tire disposal. It is illegal to put tires in the city’s dumpsters, but law-abiding customers who bring their tires to the dump are contributing to a large, mosquito-breeding mountain of tires. “Quite a few tires should be leaving Presidio,” he said. 

Frequent meeting attendee Joaquin Rodriguez asked the council what they were doing to promote recycling as a way of diverting materials from the landfill. Mayor John Ferguson took the opportunity to remind everyone about the city’s recycling center, which is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4:30 to 6 p.m. and accepts paper, cardboard, aluminum and plastic #1 and #2. The recycling center can also accept compost. “It’s all about establishing a mindset here in town,” Ferguson said.