Left to right: Hays County Judge Liz Sumter, Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe and Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton at this week’s meeting of the Hays County Commissioners Court. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
In the wake of higher salary demands for most constables and justices of the peace (JPs), the Hays County Commissioners decided this week to remove two-percent raises for elected officials from next year’s proposed budget.
The county auditor’s office said the county will save $25,120.60, plus $4,524 in fringe benefits, by eliminating salary increases for elected officials from the fiscal year (FY) 2011 budget. Scrapping the raises would would affect 21 elected county officials. District judges, the district attorney, and county court at law judges’ salaries are set by the state.
“I think the issue is, we are leaders of this community,” said Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley) during Tuesday’s commissioners court meeting. “People in this community are struggling and going through tough times, and want us to stand with them and not in front of them.”
Though the constables and JPs were unable to secure the unanimous support from a salary grievance committee to raise their pay, commissioners’ latest move created an opportunity for elected officials to file new salary grievances.
Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) said she expects most of the same JPs and constables — in addition to other elected officials — to file new salary grievances. As of Wednesday, Sumter said no one had filed a grievance. Sumter said elected officials have until Monday to do so.
A salary grievance committee meeting, to be conducted next Tuesday at 9 a.m., conflicts with the regularly scheduled commissioners court meeting. Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley), said she will conduct the grievance committee meeting, while Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos), will run the commissioners court.
All the constables and all the justices of the peace except for Precinct 5 JP Scott Cary (D-Buda) and Precinct 1, Place 1 JP JoAnne Prado (D-San Marcos) began a grievance hearing process for higher pay than what was proposed in the FY 2011 budget. Sumter, who chairs the salary grievance committee, said the JPs wanted $63,500 and constables wanted $60,000. The salary grievance committee voted 7-2 to recommend that JPs receive $60,265 and constables receive $55,000.
State law would have required commissioners to take the recommendation if the committee voted unanimously. Commissioners had proposed salaries of about $54,885 for JPs and $51,512 for constables.
During the commissioners’ discussion Tuesday, it was mentioned that the sheriff’s salary is higher than that of another elected official whose pay is set by the commissioners court, yet the sheriff makes less than the chief sheriff’s deputy.
Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) expressed discomfort with eliminating raises for elected officials other than himself. Conley expressed early support for the idea. By the time commissioners decided to nix raises for elected officials, four commissioners had publicly declined their salary increases, and so had Precinct 4 Constable Ron Hood (R-Dripping Springs). Sumter said she received a letter Wednesday from Precinct 3 Constable Darrell Ayres (R-Wimberley) stating that he would decline a pay increase this year if the county increases the tax rate. Hood made the same statement.
Commissioners are proposing a 0.47-cent property tax rate increase to 47.39 cents per $100 of taxable value, which doesn’t mean taxes will increase for everyone. The county auditor’s office said the average homeowner will pay $6.83 less under the proposed rate because property values have fallen. A 48.3-cent tax rate for FY 2011 would be required to collect the same amount of tax revenue as anticipated for FY 2010, according to the auditor’s office.
Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) expressed the desire to bring the proposed tax rate back down to the current rate of 46.92 cents, though she said the county may have to increase the tax rate in FY 2012. Conley expressed the desire to keep the current tax rate, and suggested last week that the county could remain at the current rate and still give county employees one-percent raises.
The decision to remove the two-percent elected official salary increase from the budget came a week after residents arrived at two public hearings on the budget and almost uniformly protested the proposed tax rate increase. Most of the residents who addressed commissioners last week at the second hearing expressed opposition to raises for county employees and elected officials in FY 2011, which begins on Oct. 1.
Commissioners still plan to give one-percent cost of living salary increases and one percent merit-based raises to county employees in FY 2011. The raises do not apply to law enforcement officers, who are currently in collective bargaining negotiations with the county.
Commissioners did not vote to amend the proposed budget, but opted to authorize the county judge to notify elected officials of the court’s intent to remove elected official salary increases from the proposed budget.
Commissioners would ordinarily have taken a final vote on the budget by now. Because the budget was not posted online in advance of last week’s public hearings as required by state law, the court opted to postpone adopting the budget until just after the public hearing scheduled for Sept. 28 at 1:30 p.m.