Christopher Maher, Alice Echo-News Journal
Questions still surround comments made by interim-city manager Ruben Maldonado during a recent council meeting, in which he indicated he had approved a series of raises for employees to prevent future lawsuits.
In a March 28 council meeting, while discussing an agenda item to limit the spending authority of the interim-city manager, Council member Dorella Elizondo questioned a number of raises approved by Maldonado shortly after his appointment to the position.
"I'm not comfortable with the raises that were made in February," Elizondo told the council. "Now I'm having to go back to look at everything to try to make sure that we are not out of budget, that we have not done anything criminal, that at some point I'm not going to be held liable for spending taxpayer money."
The Alice Echo-News Journal obtained a list of city employees who were given significant salary increases approved by Maldonado after he began serving as interim-city manager Feb. 1.
According to information provided by the city administration, six employees received significant salary adjustments in February, with increases ranging from 16 percent to 25 percent.
Those employees include Assistant Public Works Director Victor Ortiz, 25 percent; Assistant Public Works Director Victor Saenz, 25 percent; City Clerk Rene Marshall, 20 percent; Alice Fire Marshal Patrick Thomas, 20 percent; and Alice Fire Chief Dean Van Nest, 16.25 percent.
In responding to Elizondo during the March 28 meeting, Maldonado indicated the raises he approved were to keep employees from suing the city.
"Most of the raises that I gave were to keep litigation from coming to the City of Alice. My job is to protect the city," Maldonado said. "There were some individuals who have had raises coming to them for many, many years and, under the former administration, they were not given to them."
Maldonado said some individuals, whom he did not identify, had demanded raises by a certain time period or they would file suit against the city.
"The action I took was to protect the City of Alice, to protect the council and to protect me," Maldonado said. "Never, never in my professional career has one penny been misappropriated, been mis-spent or misused."
When asked about Maldonado's comments Friday, Marshall, Van Nest and Thomas all said they never had any conversation with Maldonado in which they threatened the city.
Messages left for Ortiz and Saenz were not returned Friday.
When asked Friday about her comments questioning whether anything criminal had occurred in giving the salary adjustments, Elizondo said she was concerned the raises would cause specific departments to go over their budgets. Elizondo said it was her understanding that if a department exceeded its overall budget before July 1, when the city charter allows adjustments to be made to the annual budget, it could result in misdemeanor criminal charges against the city.
When asked to confirm this policy Friday, City Attorney Joe Torres III said he would need to research the issue with the finance department before commenting.
The total amount of the salary adjustments made for the six city employees is $43,534, according to information provided by the city.
More than a month after Elizondo raised questions regarding the salaries in the March 28 city council meeting, she said she has still not received any answers.
"I still don't know who he was talking about, that deserved raises and hadn't been given them," Elizondo said. "Every concern that I've raised, nobody cares. No one seems concerned."
Elizondo said she hoped to see the impact the salary adjustments had to the budget in a quarterly report the council will receive in May.
Maldonado was unavailable for comment Thursday, and messages left Friday were not returned.