Battles continue over County budget
By LPR Staff
Although no one offered input during a public hearing on Caldwell County’s proposed tax rate for the coming fiscal year, battles continue to smolder over how Caldwell County Judge Kenneth Schawe has allocated funds for the coming year. Chief among those concerns is the still-swirling debate over whe
ther Schawe will take over certain judicial duties, allowing him to collect a stipend of $25,200 from the State Comptroller’s Office.
“That does affect the budget,” said Commissioner Alfredo Munoz. “Your salary is tied to the salary we can approve for the County Auditor, and that impacts the budget.”
Schawe has said in the past that he is “considering” taking on judicial duties, including hearing probate and civil cases, and he is discussing the matter with County Court at Law Judge Ed Jarrett. However, as non-committal as his responses as to his intentions are, the Post-Register has received a copy of the affidavit filed with the State of Texas last month claiming his duties entitle him to collect the stipend.
That stipend clears the way for the County to offer a pay increase to the County Auditor, whose salary must be lower than the highest-paid County elected official, except in special circumstances approved by the Commissioners. The Court has met the proposed increase for the County Auditor from $64,146 to $75,000, with resistance. However, as the salary was suggested by the District Court Judges, it will stand – unless that salary exceeds the salary of the highest-paid county elected official.
If Schawe accepts the stipend, it will increase his annual salary to $76,803 per year.
Esmeralda “Ezzy” Chan, an employee of the County Auditor’s Office, approached the Commissioners during public comments to question their resistance to the salary increase.
“Is it because she’s a Republican,” Chan queried. “Because she’s a woman? Is it because of both?”
Chan reminded the Commissioners that they had agreed to hire the current County Auditor, and asked if only they were “allowed to change [their] minds,” referencing a comment Schawe made last month when he announced he would take the stipend.
Additionally, Chan addressed what she called the “wage gap,” blasting the Court for offering 5 percent salary increases to be allocated to the District Attorney’s Office, despite the employees of that department being some of the highest paid in the county.
“If they can’t make it [on those salaries], imagine how hard it is for people making half that,” she said.
In calculating the salary increases for the coming year, Schawe said he allocated a percentage of each department’s payroll, leaving it to the department heads to determine on a merit-and-performance basis which employees would receive what amounts.
In other budget related items, the Court squabbled over a line item laying out a salary for a County Engineer, a position that Munoz questioned, as the Commissioners had previously discussed changing the position to a “planner” position.
“What we need is someone to come in and help Kaci [Miles, the county’s Director of Sanitation],” Munoz said. Miles has said in the past that her job duties, including issuing permits, working with developers, performing inspections and reviewing platting information has caused a backlog in her ability to provide service. Earlier in the budget process, the Commissioners discussed bringing in help, but have locked horns over what that help should be, and what it is worth.
“This is a growing County,” Schawe said. “We already need an engineer. And we’re already paying that amount to [outside contractors]. I don’t know why you keep resisting.”
Munoz insisted the resistance is based on the fact that a licensed engineer will not help Miles with office duties, filing and other administrative issues, areas in which he said she needs the most help.
Although she spoke to the Court to address their questions, Miles was hesitant to commit, one way or the other, saying she would rather the Commissioners make the decision as to how “help” would be brought to her office.
Election Administrator Pamela Ohlendorf also asked for a change to her budget, specifically for an additional $15,000 for ballots and supplies.
According to Ohlendorf, the 2014 Constitutional Election was her smallest in recent history, and even that cost more than her currently allocated $19,000. With the upcoming November General Election, Ohlendorf said it was likely she would need the entire $34,000, and more, to cover the costs of equipment.
While Munoz offered support for the amendment, the other Commissioners were largely silent on the issue. Schawe, however, said he would rather Ohlendorf come back to the Court after the election with a total cost, at which time they would enact a budget amendment. The issue remains unsettled.