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County studies $18 million deficit budget

Hidalgo-County-SealHidalgo County Commissioners Court held a special workshop Tuesday to continue studying a projected $18 million budget deficit.

Last week the budget deficit was listed as $12 million; however, changes in figures showed the deficit at $18 million in the second workshop.

Still county leaders think they can cut that shortfall down to $5 million, and Budget Manager Sergio Cruz presented several ways of reducing the proposed budget, which included cutting countywide operating expenditures $5,991,560, and a reduction in work force of four percent, saving $3,155,449.

Other projected savings include a reduction in the 1115 Waiver of $2,438,864 and a $250,000 per precinct reduction in road and bridge funding for a total of $1 million. Elimination of COPS grant employees would save $700,000. A reduction of state supplemental assistance amounting to $478,143 brought the total reduction to $13,764,016.

Garcia said employees who are hired under grant programs need to know that when the grant ends, they will no longer have jobs. In the past the county has absorbed their salaries. It can no longer afford to do that and employees hired under grants need to know their jobs will no longer exist when the grant ends.

“Keeping employees on after the grants disappeared was what got us into this position,” County Judge Ramon Garcia said.

It was stated that the Department of Health and Human Resources under the direction of Eddie Olivarez, was the only department that pink slipped temporary employees at the end of grants instead of trying to make their positions permanent.

Olivarez said he did so to keep his budget within the allotted money set for his department.

Other departments that may lose heavily in employees include Texas AgriLife, where eliminating five positions would save $246,000. The Department of Public Safety will reduce its staff by another five positions saving $231,000 and Child Protective Services will lose three positions at $100,000.

Garcia said he had been sitting down with Sheriff Eddie Guerra to determine where the Sheriff’s Office budget could be cut as well.

Cruz said with those reductions the deficit amount was set at $5,173,735.

The major concern of the workshop was to give county department heads an opportunity to have input on the budget, including the employees their departments are projected to lose.

Garcia said he had been receiving phone calls but the way the reduction was structured around attrition, no current employees would lose their jobs. He said they were looking at vacant positions, not salaries.

First to speak was Paul Villarreal Jr. head of the Office of Tax Assessments and Collections. Villarreal made a convincing argument that he needed the people in the five currently vacant positions under his department. He stated that three positions were in Precinct 3 (Mission) including a head bookkeeper and two title examiners. In Precinct 2, a supervisor position is open. In Precinct 4, the position is a head accountant.

Villarreal said his office collects taxes for 42 entities, which include 350,000 parcels and 550,000 registered vehicles. In addition, his office collections for the scofflaw program and now will be required to verify inspections on vehicles to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Villarreal said if Mission lost three people due to attrition, it could affect the effectiveness of service in that precinct. He said his department, which is charged with collecting the revenues for the county, needs all of its employees.

Raul Silguero, Precinct 2, told the court a reduction in position was not the same as a reduction in salary. Getting a reduction in staff through attrition is not an equitable way to reduce the budget, he said. Some departments have a salary budget of $600,000 with no vacancies and they would not be affected. Other departments are understaffed due to vacancies that need to be filled. Some are small and need all the positions they have to do the job.

Basing salary cuts on a four percent reduction is using the wrong language, Silguero said. Computing based on positions creates a situation where a small department with a $300,000 budget of primarily low paid staff loses one position.

But a larger department with a budget three times as big, might also lose only one position. The department will not lose an equal amount of money due to differences in salaries. To be fair, four percent of budgeted salaries from each department should be cut and let the department to figure out how to do it through attrition or redlining positions, Siilguero said.

Currently some positions vacant due to a 90-day hiring freeze instituted to save money during the current budget year. But those positions might be very important to that department, Silguero said.

Villarreal said there is going to be additional new services required in tax office with not help for already overburdened employees. It would be better to time staff to measure the amount of time it takes to do one job such as collect and process the fine that now must be sent to the DPS or issue an automobile registration.

If the department is overloaded, some employees could be moved to other areas or redlined. If the job is greater than the number of employees can efficiently handle, and then the department needs additional employees. Silguero felt that was the only fair way to handle the job reduction. But it would involve long-term study and could not be done overnight.

“There’s no perfect way to cut staff,” Garcia said. “That’s why some places have rules such as last in, first out. We are trying to avoid affecting individuals currently employed by the county. The only other way is for departments to redline positions that could be deleted regardless of vacancies, and we do not want to create problems for any employees.”

Commissioner Joe Flores suggested some staff members could be moved around to fill those critical vacancies.

Cruz said the county could “hire from within” to fill critical vacancies then leave the less critical vacancies unfilled.

Garcia said the county needed another $21 million to fill all department requests. He suggested there were other ways to reduce expenditures including a reduction in travel budgets.

The judge said reducing the 1115 Waiver by $2.4 million seemed to be an option because combined with the 1.385 multiplier; the $5.6 million would produce the required $8 million needed for the hospitals.

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