Amid tense budget season, county attorney seeks raise

“Whether we like him or don’t like him, whether he’s a good lawyer or a bad lawyer — we already [gave raises] for the constables."

PRESIDIO COUNTY — At last Thursday’s meeting, County Attorney Rod Ponton approached the Presidio County Commissioners Court to ask for approval to apply for a grant for new office staff — and a $12,000 raise for himself. The request came just 24 hours before the commissioners deliberated for hours over how to handle a looming budget deficit and address the ongoing failure of county employees’ salaries to keep up with inflation.

The discussion over Ponton’s salary was spurred by a wider-ranging conversation about the impact of a bill to fund law and enforcement and prosecutors on the border. In June, the state legislature adopted SB 22, promising large grants to certain local officials in border counties.

Under SB 22, salaries for the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office will see a disproportionate jump compared to other offices. Sheriff Danny Dominguez will see a raise from $54,746.64 to $75,000, a $20,253.36 increase. Precinct 1 Constable Steven Marquez and Precinct 2 Constable Adan Covos will see their salaries increase from $15,409.68 to $45,000. 

An additional $100,000 would be available to the county attorney’s office, under a provision seeking to ease rural counties’ caseloads in the wake of increased immigration-related arrests. Ponton was hoping to use the money to hire a full-time assistant so that he could have help in Marfa and Presidio — and potentially use any leftover to provide for a code enforcement officer, a years-long sore spot for the county. 

The full details of the grant have yet to be fully determined — the bill requires the comptroller’s office to set the final restrictions and an application process by January 2024. The bill’s text provides for assistance to increase the salary of or create a position for an assistant attorney, an investigative assistant, a victim assistance coordinator or “to hire additional staff for the office.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Brenda Silva Bentley was concerned about rubber-stamping Ponton’s request before the final details were ironed out by the state. “What I don’t want to see is us approving this and it not being used appropriately the way the grant is asking us to,” she said. “This isn’t going to be, ‘Let’s find a loophole and get through it.’”

Ultimately the commissioners voted to approve his request — with a promise to keep a watchful eye on how the money would eventually be spent. 

For the next agenda item, Ponton asked the commissioners for a raise of $12,000. The county currently pays him $40,000 a year annually — county attorneys also receive an annual state stipend of $28,000, bringing his total annual salary to $68,000. 

Ponton felt that his salary was unfair, given the discrepancy between his salary and those of neighboring counties. Brewster County currently contributes $57,000 a year to their county attorney’s salary, and Culberson County contributes $60,000. Oil-rich Reeves County pays $115,000. 

Over the course of the past year and a half, Ponton has resigned from two separate contract city attorney positions after drawing ire from local officials. In April 2022, Ponton resigned from his post as Presidio city attorney in the wake of heated discussions about the legality of a proposed diesel shipping route — some council members were upset that Ponton opposed an ordinance on legal grounds that had already been passed by the city. 

In June, Ponton resigned from his position as Alpine city attorney just ahead of a scheduled performance review. An internal email obtained by The Big Bend Sentinel through a public records request includes criticism from City Manager Megan Antrim about Ponton’s performance, including “scheduling conflicts after meetings have been set” and “not responding in a timely manner or providing updates/documentation.” 

At the time, Ponton denied having any knowledge of any performance issues or an impending performance review, though he is included on the email from Antrim and the discussion of his employment was placed on the city council meeting agenda ahead of his resignation.

Ponton said that resigning from these positions was not due to poor performance and instead would allow him to dedicate himself more fully to his elected position as county attorney. “I’ve reduced my workload so that I can spend more time and be more focused on doing a good job for Presidio County,” he said. 

Precinct 4 Commissioner David Beebe was upset by the proposition, given frozen salaries and pay cuts for other officials — but did concede that Ponton had been fulfilling his duties as county attorney. “You do show up, and I’m happy for that,” he said. 

Precinct 2 Commissioner Margarito Hernandez initially spoke in favor of granting Ponton the extra money, given the hefty pay increases granted to law enforcement. “Whether we like him or don’t like him, whether he’s a good lawyer or a bad lawyer — we already [gave raises] for the constables,” he said. 

Beebe also clarified that — unlike contracted city positions — raises for elected officials are not based on performance. “Even if he was doing the greatest job that anybody could do, he wouldn’t necessarily qualify for a $12,000 raise,” he said. 

The commissioners ultimately voted against granting the raise, and Ponton said he plans to hold off on submitting a formal salary grievance before elected official salaries are set on August 23. The lone dissenting vote was County Judge Joe Portillo.