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Pay increases could lead to $16 million budget shortage

EDINBURG — Hidalgo County leaders this week mulled over a five percent cost-of-living increase for employees that could leave the county with a potential $16 million shortfall.

At a budget workshop held Tuesday, officials also discussed whether to bring constable salaries in line with justices of the peace salaries.

The adopted 2012 budget is approximately $167 million. Budget adjustments brought the total to about $170 million. The county has estimated revenues of $161 million leaving a shortfall of $9.5 million. This budget did not include a planned cost-of-living increase of 4.7 percent or other adjustments to the budget. While county commissioners and county court and district judges’ salaries would stay at their current level, the cost of giving a 4.7 percent cost-of-living to 2,108 employees came to $4.3 million.

Commissioners said the 4.7 percent increase should be given “across the board.” Some staggered adjustments from three percent to 4.7 percent had been presented for consideration.

Other debates included whether equalizing pay for constables and JPs. According to Precinct 3 Constable Larry Gallardo, when he started, constables and JPs were on the same pay grade. But twice in the last few years, the JPs have requested grievance hearings over their salaries. And each time, Gallardo said those raises were granted. However, in the last hearing, JP Precinct 2 Place 1, JP Precinct 3 Place 1, and JP Precinct 4 Place 2 did not join the grievance. Their salaries remained at $78,525. With the cost-of-living adjustment, they will now earn $83,760.

Guajardo said that while the JP salaries were being adjusted, nothing had been done to adjust the constable salaries. Currently the four constables would be making $71,395 if they received just the increased cost-of-living. If raised to the level of the JPs, they would be making $83,760 each, an increase of $12,365 per constable, a total adjustment of $58,363.

After discussion, the commissioners agreed to increase the constables’ salaries in line with the JPs. Budget Director Sergio Cruz told the commissioners they were opening the door for other elected officials to demand their salaries also be raised.

Other items to be funded were the new County Court-at-Law No. 8 at $400,000; the sheriff’s substation at $1.6 million, and additional funding for Worker’s Compensation at $300,000. If everything is funded this would create a budget shortfall of $16 million.

The estimated fund balance for Dec. 31 is $35 million. With a $16 million shortfall, the estimated fund balance for Jan. 1, 2013 would drop to $18.6 million. An anticipated non-fund drawdown of $9.1 million would increase the fund balance to $27.7 million on Dec. 31, leaving a 15.62 percent reduction in the fund balance over one year, said Cruz. The drawdown includes lapsed expenditures of $3.5 million and anticipated new revenues of $2.6 million.

Commissioners said possible staff reductions and combining departments would be considered in the future as ways to reduce spending.

While the salary increases were approved, other budget workshops will be held to discuss other items before the final version of the budget is approved.

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