Schawe eyes taking judicial duties
By LPR Staff
Jonathan Swift once wrote that promises and pie crusts were meant to be broken.
In some circles, that’s known as one “changing his mind” – which is exactly the explanation County Judge Kenneth Schawe offered on Monday morning when he revealed his intention to explore the possibility of taki
ng on judicial responsibilities, thereby laying claim to a state-mandated stipend that will increase his salary for the coming fiscal year by $25,200.
The obscure passage in the Texas Government code allows for a stipend, payable by the state, for County Judges whose duties are comprised of at least 40 percent “judicial duties.” Claiming that a “large percentage” of his current duties already fall under the heading of “judicial duties,” Schawe said he had taken probate classes, and was considering taking on additional duties in the execution of probate cases. His doing so, he said, would ease a backlog in the Caldwell County Court at Law under Judge Edward Jarrett.
There have been few public complaints about backlogs in Jarrett’s court.
In reviewing the budget during Monday’s regular meeting of the Caldwell County Commissioners Court, Commissioner Alfredo Munoz reminded Schawe that he had promised, during candidate forums prior to his election, that he would not hear probate cases, nor receive the state stipend.
“I also said ‘I do’ twice,” Schawe fired back. “I was married twice; people change their minds.”
Some in the community may question whether that change is a result of a 2015 change to the statute which allows the stipend, raising the floor on the salary bump from $15,000 to “18 percent of the annual compensation provided to a District Judge in the General Appropriations Act.”
The proposed budget currently sets Schawe’s salary at $51,603. If he takes the stipend, that will jump to $76,803.
Munoz also questioned an increase in the salary for the County Auditor, which is making a jump from $64,146 to $75,000.
Schawe explained the increase was a result of a mandate from the District Judges, who are responsible for setting that salary. Munoz said he was unaware whether a public hearing was held to discuss the matter, and suggested the Commissioners and the public should have been aware such a change was being made.
As in years past, it falls to the District Judges to suggest the salary for the County Auditor, who under State law is hired by and accountable to the District Judges. It falls to the Commissioners, however, to approve or deny that salary; in the past, the Commissioners have made changes to the salary levels, despite the Judges’ recommendations.
The proposed budget calls for an increase in the tax rate to $0.7753 per $100 of valuation, up from $0.7175, and just shy of the required rollback rate. The tax increase amounts to an increase in the budget of $1.4 million, much of which will be used to fund employee pay raises at a level of 5 percent, the purchase of an ambulance, additional river enforcement and ear marks to the Unit Road System to help offset damage from the recent flooding events.
In other budget news, the Commissioners spent the bulk of their meeting discussing options for employee health care coverage.
The Commissioners expressed widely varying views about the three potential options for insurance coverage, including the suggested proposal, which saves the County around $200,000, but will increase employee deductibles and co-payments. Those increases, according to Munoz, render the proposed pay raises nil.
“We’re talking about giving them a raise, but they’re going to have to use that raise to meet their deductibles,” Munoz said.
Commissioner Eddie Moses proposed a middle-of-the-road approach, which would increase the County’s cost, but would ease the pressure on the employees. He said he spoke to many people, and many who took individual coverage would not be affected either way. Those who the change would impact the most, he said, were the employees who took spousal or family coverage.
Schawe said that any changes to the insurance program would result in money needing to be taken away from the pay increases, and that the budget would have to be reworked almost completely to accommodate the changes.
“I see what the Judge is saying,” Commissioner Joe Roland said. “Because it’s not just about changing one line item, if we made a change to the insurance that’s going to cost that much, it’s going to change everything else.”
In the end, the Commissioners voted unanimously to move forward with preparation of the budget with the insurance option suggested by Schawe in place.
“The Proposed Budget is needed to finance a growing County,” Schawe wrote in an introductory letter attached to the proposed budget.
Public hearings regarding the budget and tax rate have been scheduled on Sept. 6 and Sept. 12, during the regular meetings of the Caldwell County Commissioners Court. The proposed budget is available online at www.co.caldwell.tx.us.
In other business, the Commissioners heard a presentation from Emergency Management Coordinator Martin Ritchey about the response to the July 30 hot air balloon crash.
“I can’t say enough about the people that were first on the scene,” Ritchey said. “They were phenomenal.”
Once State and Federal officials arrived to secure and investigate the scene, he said the cooperation exceeded all expectations.
“There were no ego clashes,” he said. “It was all about stabilizing the scene and getting resources to the victims and their families. An investigation that was supposed to go on until Wednesday was done by Monday evening.”
When the Federal authorities arrived, Ritchey said, local workers were able to turn their attention to the families, offering counseling and other resources based at Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Maxwell.
“We were able to set up the [transportation] to take the families to the scene, and we were able to arrange the buses and the fire trucks so the cameras couldn’t see them,” he said. “I think that was cathartic for the families. Our first responders did an amazing job with this, and now it’s important that we put our arms around them.”
The investigation into the cause of the crash continues, and one victim still remains officially unidentified as the medical examiner awaits the results of DNA testing to confirm her identity.
In brief news:
The Court opted to keep an outdoor burning ban in place, for at least another 30 days. Ritchey said conditions this summer mirror those that existed in 2008, and that the danger for wildland fire activity remains high. County residents are reminded that while the burn ban remains in place, outdoor burning is prohibited, and people should take cautions when welding, towing vehicles or dragging chains, and should avoid throwing cigarette butts or other flammable materials on the ground.
They approved the lists presented by the County’s political party chairs for would-be election workers for the next two years. Elections Administrator Pamela Ohlendorf will use names from those lists to compile a list of election judges for the Nov. 8, 2016, General Election and will present those lists to the Court at a later time.
They announced the hiring of Daniel Patrick Fowler as the County’s new Human Resources Coordinator.
They praised enforcement efforts on the San Marcos River, where Constables have issued 134 citations for public intoxication, minor in possession and other infractions over the last three weeks.
The County paid bills in the amount of $436,733.22.
The Caldwell County Commissioners Court routinely meets on the second and fourth Monday of each month at 9 a.m. in the Second Floor Courtroom of the historic Caldwell County Courthouse. The meetings are open to the public and are webcast at www.co.caldwell.tx.us.