Starr County approves budget despite judge’s objections

RIO GRANDE CITY — County commissioners’ approval of the 2017-18 budget wasn’t without conflict or confusion.

Judge Eloy Vera joined fellow commissioner Ruben Saenz in voting against the budget on Monday, reasoning that he had yet to see an updated draft before the meeting. It wasn’t clear as of press time Monday why Saenz opted against the budget as presented.

“As budget officer, I want to say that this is the first time I see it,” Vera said of the budget, of which county officials have yet to release or confirm its total.

Commissioners Jaime Alvarez, Eloy Garza and Raul Peña III voted to approve what Alvarez referred to as “budget alternative number one.”

In addition to being unfamiliar with the budget updates, Vera took issue with the figure totaling the county’s debt.

“One thing on page four that I see is the total debt for the county is almost $6 million — that’s not correct,” the judge said during discussion. “A debt is something that is incurred over a long period of time, and the debt that we have is about a $1.5 million debt.”

The $1.5 million in question is from loans that were taken out earlier this year.

“Those are called bridge-overs (bridge loans) — that is not considered debt because you pay them within one year,” he argued. “So in a county, those are not debt, those are bridge-overs. …This debt of six million is totally, totally wrong.”

Vera also noted that the county has $2.5 million in the I&S, the debt-service fund which is used to pay off debts.

However, County Treasurer Fernando Peña disagreed, stating later that it was, in fact, debt.

Vera said after the meeting that he believed the “debt” was being used as justification for cuts in personnel.

“They had tremendous cuts in personnel,” Vera said. “We’re going to be hurting because those people are key people in the county.”

The judge’s department was cut by 37 percent and the sheriff’s office was cut by almost 20 percent, according to Vera. He said the county’s only permit inspector for construction was cut, as well as its bookkeeper for the gas and transfer station, and two of Vera’s administrative assistants.

“As it is, there’s a lot of meetings that we don’t attend to because I don’t have a staff to send,” Vera said. “What I saw didn’t look good at all.”

The budget cuts, according to Vera, were deeper than discussed during a workshop held last week. Because the changes were new to him, Vera said he could not provide a budget figure.

Boyd Carter, the interim county auditor, could also not provide a total figure for the county’s projected expenses. However, he did note that the projected tax revenue was $13,047,302.

“The revenue projection in this budget quite a bit lower than the one that was discussed earlier,” Carter said, referring to a difference he noticed from the final budget to the one discussed during the workshop. “And therefore several departments have had their expenditures reduced.”

Carter said the budget was not yet available, as not all the commissioners had signed it.

“After the meeting, apparently some of the commissioners left the building and didn’t come back to sign it, so it’s not been officially recorded yet,” Carter said. “As soon as it’s recorded, it’s public information.”