The Agua Special Utility District spent more than $9,000 on a Christmas luncheon in mid-December.
Agua SUD held a two-hour Christmas luncheon on Dec. 16, when the utility district thanked employees and treated them to chicken cordon bleu.
“For all their hard work and dealing with the COVID,” said utility board President Homer Tijerina. “And, hopefully, a better 2021 for everybody — for their families.”
The utility district spent about $800 to rent tables, chairs and tents for the luncheon. Food cost another $800.
Agua SUD also handed out TVs, computer tablets, Apple AirPods and air fryers to employees during a raffle. The gifts cost more than $7,400, according to documents released under the Texas Public Information Act.
The total included a $3,200 trip to Best Buy, where Agua SUD purchased Apple TVs, Ring video doorbells, and small refrigerators. Agua SUD also dropped nearly $4,200 at Walmart, where the utility district purchased kitchen appliances, projectors and tools.
Tijerina said utility district General Manager Jose E. “Eddie” Saenz approved expenses for the Christmas luncheon.
“Eddie took care of it,” Tijerina said. “We were just told: ‘Show up.’”
Saenz didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The city of Palmview, the city of Peñitas, the city of La Joya and Sullivan City also organized holiday events in December.
Sullivan City employees held a Christmas luncheon and exchanged gifts, said City Manager Ana Mercado. Employees brought their own food and Sullivan City didn’t pay for the gifts.
Peñitas purchased barbecue plates for employees, said City Manager Omar Romero. The city didn’t buy them gifts.
In La Joya, the city treated employees to lunch from the local VFW, said City Manager Jacqueline Bazan. Some employees also participated in a Secret Santa gift exchange, but employees brought their own gifts.
Palmview also organized a holiday lunch for employees, said City Manager Michael Leo. The city purchased tumblers for employees, which cost about $10 apiece.
Asked whether or not he believed Agua SUD acted appropriately when the utility district purchased gifts for employees, Tijerina refused to answer the question.
“That’s the way it’s always been done,” Tijerina said.
Tijerina, who became utility board president after the November 2020 election, said Agua SUD had organized similar events since at least 2015.
From about 2015 to 2017, the utility district rented an events center for the annual Christmas get-together, Tijerina said, but not many employees attended.
Agua SUD spent nearly $4,900 on the 2015 event, according to information provided by Tijerina. The cost increased to about $5,100 in 2016 and $5,300 in 2017.
In about 2018, the utility district switched to a Christmas luncheon, which takes place during the workday, Tijerina said. That allowed more employees to attend.
Agua SUD spent about $7,600 in 2018, according to information provided by Tijerina. In 2019, the utility district spent nearly $10,700.
The utility district accepted donations from engineers, attorneys and other contractors, which covered most of the costs from 2015 to 2019.
Soliciting donations from people who did business with Agua SUD, though, created potential conflicts of interest. Agua SUD didn’t accept donations for the 2020 Christmas luncheon.
Former utility board President Mario Chapa, who became a frequent critic of Agua SUD during the past few years, said he wasn’t particularly troubled by the gifts.
“The idea that they might reward employees for a year’s worth of work with a Christmas present like that — especially a nice present — I don’t find it totally revolting or offending as a ratepayer,” Chapa said. “I could find it acceptable as long as the funds went to the employee and not somewhere else.”
Spending thousands on gifts for employees, however, may be problematic, Chapa said, depending on the utility district’s financial situation.
“I definitely think that a Christmas bonus almost should suffice, if you will, and that the Christmas gift isn’t really necessary,” Chapa said. “I guess it just depends on what the board felt like, financially, they could afford.”