WESLACO — The month of August is prime budget-planning season for municipalities across the state as they prepare for the Sept. 29 deadline to adopt a budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. As such, the cities of Mercedes and Weslaco both began the first in a series of public budget workshops this week.
In Mercedes, the entire city commission sat for the city’s first workshop Tuesday afternoon. The meeting stretched for an hour and a half, during which the commission, Mercedes City Manager Sergio Zavala and various department heads focused their discussions on the city secretary’s office, the finance and planning departments, and the public library.
While the roundtable at many times revolved around requests for updated technology — such as information management software for the city secretary’s office and the library — expected to add several hundred dollars to those departments’ budget requests, a closer listen to the overall discussion Tuesday revealed a much more pressing need: the hiring of several high-level city staffers.
In recent months, turnover within the city’s top brass has been high.
On June 18, former Police Chief Olga Maldonado and the department’s next highest-ranking officer, Capt. Eddie Treviño retired and resigned from the department, respectively.
Assistant City Manager Dagoberto “Dago” Chavez, himself a fairly recent hire, has since been appointed chief of police. Chavez now serves in a dual role as both police chief and assistant city manager.
For some time now, Zavala himself has also been serving in a dual capacity, as both the city manager and planning director.
And on July 18, one month after Maldonado’s departure, longtime City Secretary Arcelia “Arcie” Felix also retired. Then this past week, on Thursday, Fire Marshal Rolando “Blue” Maldonado, husband of the former police chief, also retired.
The administrative vacancies have left city leaders wondering how to accommodate the open positions in the budget planning process.
In regards to the city secretary position, Mayor Henry Hinojosa speculated the city could see a cost-savings due to the fact that Felix’s successor would not be earning the longevity pay she had earned in her decades with the city.
“The new person is not going to be making what Arcie was making. There will be some considerable savings,” Hinojosa said.
Zavala estimated the salary for that position could range from $48,000–$55,000, though he demurred when asked by Commissioner Leonel Benavidez whether he would be publicly posting the job vacancy.
Zavala said a similar payroll cost-savings could apply to the hiring of a new fire marshal.
The city manager also broached the subject of potentially hiring a dedicated planning director. “As we move forward, just put it on the shelf for now that, if possible, we would like to get a planning director hired,” Zavala said.
“But if not, then I guess I’ll continue doing that work and see how long I last,” he said.
Finally, Zavala urged the commission to consider hiring a purchasing agent to properly oversee the city’s fixed assets, as well as to facilitate the city’s myriad requests for proposals and requests for qualifications.
According to Zavala, an independent financial auditor highlighted that Mercedes’ lack of a fixed asset manager contributed to several “issues,” he said.
City staff allocated the addition of $35,000 to the finance department budget for hiring a purchasing agent.
“Let’s put a question mark there until we’re at our last budget workshop,” Mayor Hinojosa said.
Mercedes’ next budget workshop is expected to be held this Wednesday at 1 p.m.
Just down the road, city leaders in Weslaco were also gathering to discuss budget needs for the upcoming year. Officials here scheduled half a dozen workshops from July 30 through August 22, with each city department slated for a specific day.
Thursday’s workshop was slated to include the airport, municipal court and city secretary’s office.
City Secretary Myra Ayala said several budget lines for her department should see a decrease in the upcoming fiscal year, but, like Mercedes, she was requesting $6,000 in funding to purchase public information management software.
She also added that the current year’s expenditures may exceed projections due to the costs associated with the ongoing special election and those associated with the upcoming centennial celebration.
Airport director and Assistant City Manager Andrew Muñoz broke down the revenue projections for the airport. Muñoz also presided over Thursday’s workshop in place of City Manager Mike Perez, who was out of town.
Jet traffic has increased at the airport, while small aircraft traffic has declined, Munoz said. Overall, the number of flights at the airport are up compared to last fiscal year — by 146 flights as of last Wednesday, Munoz said.
However, a year-over-year analysis shows that revenues are not keeping pace with those of last year. A variety of factors have contributed to the revenue dip, including a slump in air traffic that has only recently begun to swing upwards again, and the cheaper cost of fuel.
Munoz added the airport will be seeking a $15,000 capital outlay to pay for perimeter gate improvements which will allow first responders better access to the facility.
Finally, Weslaco Municipal Court administrator Rosa Huerta gave a brief overview of the court’s needs, including new legislation that mandates payroll changes to court bailiffs.
“Other than that, there’s some state legislation that might change certain things in the municipal court, but we still have to go into detail as far as deciphering all those laws that are going to come into play in our court,” Huerta said.
New legislation is also affecting the way cities plan their fiscal decisions.
The budget planning process is always a tightrope-walking process balancing tax-generated revenues with seemingly ever-increasing expenditures. During the 2019 legislative session, the passage of Senate Bill 2 created a revenue cap that requires putting property tax increases of more than 3.5% to a vote.
“The difficulty with us is the state legislature this past year passed a lot of restrictions on what municipalities can and can’t do,” Munoz said. “It’s hard to maintain services, do drainage projects, continue with your capital improvement projects, as well as generate revenues when you’re being capped from the state level.”
Despite that, conservative budgeting has allowed city leaders to “hit all of our big priorities,” Munoz said.
The next budget workshop is slated for Wednesday, Aug. 14.