EDITORIAL: Out-of-control Hidalgo County salaries

Despite years of assurances and promises, Hidalgo County Commissioners have failed to establish a step-and-grade system that would equalize pay rates among county employees. The consequences became financially clear, once again, during the first commissioner’s court meeting of 2018 in Edinburg on Tuesday, when a barrage of salary increases (mostly from judges) were brought forward and approved by Hidalgo County Commissioners without hesitation or much discussion, in part because no hard rules are in place.

It’s out of control as taxpayers continue footing the bill for these salaries and perks, including a $1,500 auto allowance for an executive assistant II position in the county’s tax office, which commissioners also approved Tuesday.

Most of the salary increase requests came from our esteemed judiciary, which has made it clear to all who inquire that they oppose limits and salary regulations placed on their staff.

This included 93rd District Court Judge Rudy Delgado, who came with other judges to commissioner’s court on Tuesday to request, and got, more money for their employees. Delgado wants to hire a new bailiff from another court and increase his salary to $50,395 — a move that Hidalgo County Human Resources Director Raul Silguero told the court is “just a slight increase” from the slot’s budgeted amount of $43,359.

We disagree. A $7,036 pay raise, or 14 percent increase from the budgeted amount, is substantial. So is the $10,000 pay increase Delgado also requested, and got, for his assistant court coordinator to $51,816, up from the 2017 salary of $41,816.

Other pay increases approved Tuesday included $2,000 to Delgado’s interpreter, and $2,500 to the assistant court coordinator for 398th state District Court Judge Librado “Keno” Vasquez.

District Judge Roberto “Bobby” Flores, of the 139th Court, was also present and he asked and got the following salary increases for his staff: $2,308 for his court coordinator; $4,605 for his bailiff and $1,972 for his assistant court coordinator for 2018.

A smiling Flores told commissioners that he had put forth his budget in August and did not expect it to be changed. Given the unanimous approvals for every item, the judges clearly had the upper hand over commissioners.

But commissioners, who ultimately are in charge of the county’s budget, must push back and publicly challenge every department’s salary request.

For years, district judges have doled out outrageous and disparate salaries to their employees without regulation by county officials. And it is clear they want to keep it that way.

Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said publicly: “He’s using the same argument that other district judges are using, and that’s that it is within their (overall court) budget.”

But at some point our county leaders must rein in salary spending. They must have the fortitude to collectively say “no,” even to those wearing black robes. They must stand up to other elected officials and abandon this namby-pamby attitude that has allowed the courts to spend whatever they want on whoever they want seemingly without challenge.

With over 3,000 county employees, capping unnecessary salary spending and perks is crucial right now for this economically poor county, especially if county officials expect to build a new $150 million courthouse on the backs of taxpayers in the next five years.

The audible groaning heard in court Tuesday from some of the OWLS who were present should have rung loudly in the ears of commissioners, and hopefully for Flores.

As Judge Garcia told us afterward: “It should not be happening.”

If commissioners would finally approve and enact the long-promised step-and-grade system — one that would set a firm salary table for all county employees based on merit and performance — then commissioners would have justification for denying these frequent and unnecessary salary increase requests.

We therefore, once again, call upon commissioners to vote to enact the step-and-grade policy ASAP. Silguero told us on Tuesday it is “expected to be taken up in a couple of weeks.” But after years of hearing similar promises from him, frankly, we are doubtful. And that is unfortunate for taxpayers, who in the meantime, continue to fund these arbitrary requests that drain our county’s coffers.

We also caution commissioners from approving a request made Tuesday by Hidalgo County Executive Officer Valde Guerra, who doesn’t want all salary-related issues to be brought before the court in the future. On Tuesday, Guerra proposed drafting a policy that would not require commissioners to approve salary changes that have no “net effect” to the budget, such as deleting a position and creating another position for the same salary. But that would limit the public’s knowledge of salary changes and approval of perks for various departments paid for with taxpayer funds. And that is a dangerous slope to go down.

We strongly urge our elected commissioners to stop salary increases and to hold firm to the approved fiscal budget. They also must continue to air all personnel salary changes in open court in order to maintain transparency for the public that they represent.

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