By Kathi Bliss
Motivations and intentions continue to be called into question as the Caldwell County Judge moves closer to proposing a budget for the coming fiscal year.
In what became a heated discussion, County Judge Tom Bonn on Monday revealed a proposal for the salaries for the County’s elected officials for the coming budget year. Under State statute, the Commissioners Court must advertise the maximum salary increase for all elected officials prior to voting on a budget to approve those salaries. Though they may, during budget negotiations, reduce the proposed amount, they may not provide a raise over the amount advertised. (See the advertisement here).
Upon introducing the proposal, Bonn suggested, and the Commissioners reached an agreed consensus, that the Judge and the Commissioners would not accept a pay increase this year.
Most of the other elected officials can expect a pay increase equal to 20 percent of the difference between their 2011 salary and the salary proposed in last year’s salary survey. In general, those increases are between 6 and 11 percent, with the highest salary increase being $3,200 to the Caldwell County Court at Law Judge.
Notably, because of the way the salary survey was structured, Caldwell County Sheriff Daniel Law may realize an $8,800 raise this year. This jump was caused by an anomaly in the salary survey within his department, wherein the “second step” of the pay scale would make the Chief Deputy’s salary higher than the Sheriff’s.
The trouble came, however, in discussing the salaries for the county clerk, county treasurer and district clerk, each of whom filed a grievance last year after salaries were set. Though those grievances passed the state-mandated grievance committee with a majority, the vote was not unanimous, which forced the Commissioners Court to vote on the increases, which were eventually granted.
Now, however, Bonn is calling those grieved-for increases an “advance,” and has offered those positions increases between $1,500 and $1,700. Bonn maintained the proposal was fair, because he said it would set those salaries at the second-tier salary proposed in last year’s salary survey.
The officials in question, however, did not see it that way.
District Clerk Tina Morgan was the most vocal, suggesting to the Commissioners that the salaries were set as an attempt to punish she, Caldwell County Treasurer Lori Rangel and County Clerk Carol Holcomb for grieving last year.
“We grieved because these are our full-time jobs and because we need a living salary,” Morgan and Holcomb agreed. “We feel like we’re being punished because we grieved last year.”
Morgan suggested that Bonn should have reviewed their current salaries, and granted one-quarter the difference between those salaries and the salaries suggested under the five-year plan, rather than simply looking at the figures provided before the grievance.
“This is the fair way,” Bonn insisted. “Other elected officials waited their turn, and you three grieved, so that was an ‘advance’ and you got it early.”
Commissioners Neto Madrigal, Joe Roland and Alfredo Munoz expressed concern about Bonn’s proposal, which was open for discussion but was not listed on the agenda for a vote. At different times, each asked him to change the proposed posting as a means to give the Commissioners a chance to discuss and vote on the salary caps for those three positions.
The figures connected to those salaries, however, were not changed before the notice was submitted to this newspaper, despite the requests and objections from three of the five members of the Court.
Commissioner Fred Buchholtz remained silent during the discussion.
In a related item, the Commissioners briefly discussed salary proposals for non-elected county staff, all of whom will likely see a significant increase in pay again this year.
Though the matter had been discussed and tabled twice before, the Court last year enacted the first step of their so-called “five-year plan.”
They voted on Monday to take the second step of that plan, which if the budget is approved later this summer, will give every non-elected county employee a pay increase.
Sparks continued to fly as Buchholtz made a public commitment to keep taxpayers informed about the costs that might be attached to the elimination of the County Administrator department last month.
Buchholtz said the decision to eliminate the department would be costly for the County, and said that he did not believe the taxpayers should be saddled with “ the cost of political promises from last November.”
Buchholtz went so far as to blame local Democrats and a group he called the “no-growth party,” for any charges that might be incurred, as former County Administrator Ron Heggemeier has already filed a grievance against the County, and rumors abound that a lawsuit might follow.
Roland bristled at the accusation, suggesting that the blame should be placed in the Court that created the position above objections from other Court members and community members, rather than with those who eliminated the position.
Bonn retorted that the blame should go on those who voted to eliminate the position, which he maintained was an “illegal action,” because the County Administrator was “my employee. You eliminated his job and so in effect, you fired him, and you can’t do that in the middle of the budget.”
When outraged members of the gallery responded that the action had not been proven illegal, Bonn gaveled them to silence, frustration evident on his face.
In brief news:
A selection committee nominated Lillian Treece to serve temporarily as the Caldwell County Veterans Services Officer. The current VSO, David Francis, has been called to active-duty and will deploy to Afghanistan later this summer. Treece will serve in his stead, and there is no indication at this time that Francis will not resume his duties upon his return.
Plum Creek Watershed Protection representative Nick Dornak approached the Commissioners to ask for financial support of $10,000 as he works toward applying for a hog abatement grant from the Texas Department of Agriculture. Dornak expects to also pursue matching funds for the grant from Hays County and hopes that property owners and private donors will get involved in the program, as well. He said he estimates feral hogs do upwards of $1 million in damage to Caldwell County properties every year.
Sanitation officer Kasi Miles reported that the county collected $6,450 on 16 septic permits and $9,315 for 31 residential permits during the month of May.
They approved an interlocal agreement with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) to proceed with Phase II of a flood protection planning study, at a cost of $7,767.
The Commissioners voted to approve a Family Land Grant exception for a tract of property on Seminole Trail, and they approved the final plat for the revised Pebblestone Subdivision on Pebblestone Road.
The County paid bills in the amount of $200,994.62.
On the advice of Emergency Management Coordinator Jim Parker, the Commissioners opted not to enact an outdoor burning ban at this time. In a related item, the lack of a burn ban also prevents the Court from imposing a ban on aerial fireworks for the Fourth of July holiday season. No such ban is likely, but in the event of an emergency situation, an order could be issued enacting a burn ban, which might prevent the use of some fireworks.
That action is not expected at this time.
The Caldwell County Commissioners meet on the second, third and fourth Monday of each month at 9 a.m. in the Conference and Training Room of the LW Scott Annex, 1403 Blackjack St. (FM 20E), in Lockhart. The meetings are open to the public and interested stakeholders are encouraged to attend and participate.