County commissioners to vote on pay raises

Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. said he’s not in favor of increasing county elected officials’ compensation to the maximum levels set by county commissioners at an Aug. 6 regular meeting.

Commissioners are expected to vote on increases in compensation for themselves, Trevino and most other county elected officials during the commissioners court’s regular meeting Tuesday at the Cameron County Courthouse/Dancy Building, 1100 E. Monroe St., with a public hearing scheduled for 9 a.m.

For Trevino, the maximum proposed compensation is $119,400, including a $9,000 automobile allowance and $5,400 in juvenile board compensation. He currently makes $70,743 a year as county judge, including juvenile board compensation. For commissioners, the maximum is $81,760, including automobile allowances, up from the current $48,116.

The exception is Precinct 1 Commissioner Sofia Benavides, who doesn’t take an automobile allowance and would make $80,800 under the maximum. Also in line for salary increases are the positions of district clerk, county clerk, justice of the peace, county treasurer, tax assessor/collector and constable.

Exceptions are Precinct 1 and Precinct 4 constables Peter Delgadillo and Merced Burnias, who are not being considered for increases — also the case for Sheriff Omar Lucio.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Joey Lopez, who has led the compensation issue, said the effort is intended to bring county employees and officials’ compensation more closely in line with their peers across the state.

The proposed raises for elected officials come at the end of a three-phase increase in compensation for the county’s rank-and-file employees, bringing their pay to within 95 percent of the market rate, he said. Phase one was enacted early this year. Next year’s budget, which commissioners are currently putting together, should allow approval of the last two phases on Tuesday, Lopez said.

The raises are based on a study the county did about two and a half years ago, classifying county positions and revealing that pay for most of the jobs was very low compared to other counties across the state, he said.

“My first priority was to make sure employees were taken care of,” Lopez said.

When two commissioners pointed out that the court itself hadn’t had a salary increase in more than 20 years, he requested that staff look into that as well, Lopez said.

“Then it was a shock when the numbers came back,” he said. “We were way down on the totem pole.”

Lopez said a budget workshop scheduled for Monday should give commissioners the data they need to decide how much to increase officials’ compensation under the cap. Lopez said that when he motioned to set the maximums on Aug. 6, he did so with an eye toward the budget.

“Any salary increase is an expense that doesn’t go away,” Lopez said. “We need to make sure when we budget this, it has to be able to be funded every year.”

Trevino said boosting employees’ salaries was long overdue, especially since some of those employees weren’t even making a living wage.

“I think we should be doing everything we can to make sure our employees are well compensated for a job well done, especially on the lower end that were not well compensated,” he said. “Some people may disagree.”

For elected officials, aside from a handful of individual cost-of-living adjustments, the county has neglected compensation issue for years, Trevino said. At the same time, he doesn’t support raising officials’ compensation to the cap, he said, adding that he’s heard a number of concerns from constituents over the issue and understands those concerns.

“It will not be the maximum,” Trevino said. “That’s for sure. It’s got to be a much more reasonable number that’s in line with a reasonable approach and concerns that have been raised.”

Going forward, the idea is for the county to stay on top of compensation and make adjustments when called for, guided by the classification system, rather than playing catch-up every 20 years or so, he said.

“Kicking the can down the road doesn’t always work,” Trevino said. “We’re going to have to address these issues.”

He added that just because Cameron County is poor doesn’t mean it should resign itself to being last and least in all things.

“I’ve got to believe we’re doing a little bit better than we were 20 years ago, and I feel positive about the future,” Trevino said. “While we have to work within the constraints of our budget and our financial means, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we … shouldn’t be striving for more.

“We’ve got SpaceX developing in our backyard, the port is growing by leaps and bounds, there’s workforce training and a lot of projects here in Cameron County that, if they come to fruition, hopefully will have a positive impact for our community.”

Interim County Administrator Pete Sepulveda Jr., who researched the salary issue, said he used a survey from the Texas Association of Counties to compare salaries of Cameron County elected officials to those of counties of roughly similar population.

Compared to counties with populations of 100,000 and more, Cameron County was second from the bottom in what it pays elected officials, he said. Among counties with populations of 300,000, Cameron County was the lowest, Sepulveda said, noting that the disparity is worse for some elected official positions than for others.

And while there are a number of other metrics that could be taken into consideration — per-capita income and poverty levels, for instance — the county believes raises are justified, he said, while adding that he doesn’t speak for the county judge or commissioners court.

“How do you arrive at a number that is fair and just? I think that’s something that the court is trying to deal with,” Sepulveda said. “I don’t think there’s a formula you can utilize to come up with that number. I think the court is going to have to decide what is fair and what is just.”

Cameron County’s population is nearly 424,000, according to a 2018 Census Bureau estimate. Its per-capita income is $27,241, among the lowest in the state, and has a poverty rate of 31.2 percent.

Hidalgo County has a population more than double Cameron County’s, per-capita income of $25,617 and a poverty rate of 31.8 percent. Hidalgo County’s proposed salary schedule for 2019 is $118,099.80 for county judge plus an $8,000 automobile allowance, and $101,228.40 plus an $8,000 automobile allowance for commissioners.

Willacy County, with a much smaller population of 21,839, a poverty rate of 35.6 percent and a per-capita income of $30,047, pays its county judge $44,745 a year and its commissioners $32,300 annually.

Starr County, population 63,420, has a poverty rate of 35 percent and per-capita income of $24,981, yet pays its county judge and commissioners $74,918 annually, $4,175 higher than Trevino’s current compensation and $25,842 more than the highest paid Cameron County commissioners.

Sepulveda said crunching the numbers for the merger this year of the Brownsville Metropolitan Planning Organization with the Rio Grande Valley’s other two MPOs, while a lot of work, was less difficult figuring out where to set compensation.

“We spent lot of time looking at funding formulas,” he said. “That was easy compared to this issue.”