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Duval County officials expressed concern over budget

Staff Writer
Alice Echo News Journal
Elected officials in Duval County expressed their concerns about the cuts made in the newly adopted budget.

SAN DIEGO – Making tough decisions in regards to a county budget is always a hard thing to do. What departments can survive with a lower budget and how will this affect the residents of that county are questions that the county judge and county commissioners should ask themselves before proposing a budget.

Last week, Duval County Judge Gilbert Saenz and the four commissioners adopted a new budget for the county, but many elected officials, county employees and county residents don't see the “fairness” in the new budget.

“When the judge came to us last year with a budget cut, he said that those who cooperated with him would not be hit when the following budget came around. Well, that's this budget that they just approved,” said Duval County Sheriff Romeo Ramirez. “We worked with his budget last year and we still got hit again this year.”

Judge Saenz said when determining the budget for all the departments including the Duval County Sheriff's Office and the jail, they evaluated the number items such as whether or not the cooperated on last year's budget, reports turned in, circumstances that arise daily especially with the coronavirus (COVID-19), and money available to the county.

“Someone said we're defunding the sheriff's office. There's no such thing...It's going from $1.39 (million) last year, to $1.27 million this year. The reduction here is the elimination of a position of an investigator..., dispatchers stayed the same, deputies salary was $420,000, this year, it's $414,000...,” Saenz said. “There were some expenses we had to reduce and see a reduction (in) fuel and gas...Every other budget, every other office, we looked at the analysis to see how much is getting spent in that area and if we see if it's going up and down, we make those adjustments. Overall, our sheriff's office is probably close to 20 percent of our budget.”

Sheriff Ramirez reminded Judge Saenz of the statements he made to him and other elected officials last year.

“The only officials that cooperated (last year) were the district clerk, she eliminated one position, and your county clerk, she eliminated one position. Everybody else was reduced by five hours. During that time you cut our funding over $120,000, this is last year. This year, you're asking us to cut an investigator, again...You're also asking us to cut fuel pretty much by half the amount.We're spending $120 (thousand) and you're giving us $70 (thousand),” Sheriff Ramirez said. “You're asking us to cut repairs. You know the condition of our county roads. Our officers travel them everyday...Some how last year you still managed to save $500,000. You improved County Road 103 even though we had cuts. A month ago, you asked for a line of credit for $1.4 million, twice the amount we asked for last year and the year before that...We set aside $1.4 million to include $1 million for road improvements for the city streets and $400,000 for machinery to repair those roads, but, yet, you cut the sheriff's office personnel, you cut our public safety personnel... I cooperated with you last year when no helped you other than those two other offices (district clerk and county clerk), and the reducing five hours for everybody, but I'm still getting less funding by $240,000. Precinct 2 is getting cut by $242,000, precinct 3 by $52,000, precinct 1 by $37,000 and precinct 4 by $12,000. The district judge by $30,000, the district attorney by $57,000, the elections department by $18,000, the county auditor by $32,000, the county attorney by $30,000. And you still set aside a million and a half at the sacrifice of our employees, at the sacrifice of my employees...We have 1800 square foot county to patrol and we only have to patrol officers per shift. We will serve and protect our residents no matter the cost.”

With COVID-19, the county has been hit even more. Not all taxpayers can afford to pay their taxes, the juvenile faculty shut down, no court fees coming in and many people lost their jobs. Monies that would normally come into the county to be used as part of the budget.

County Judge Saenz said that he recently reduced his staff by one person and another staff member is on a part-time position. However, he also said, there was an increase to the county judge's budget that covered an employee that was paid through the treasurer's office, but will now be under his budget.

Duval County Attorney Baldemar Gutierrez stood before the county judge and the commissioners to voice his opinion in the matter and to stress how these cuts would affect his staff and his court system.

“When I looked at the budget, judge, there was a considerable deduction to my office. I have three employees that I depend on and there's been a deduction of approximately $30,000...with the monies that you've set aside, or proposed to set aside, for my office I estimate that my office can continue operations for approximately 17 pay periods. I believe there's a total of 26 pay periods...We do provide the majority, as you know, in addition to that we handle all the truancy cases, we handle all mental commitment cases...I need a complete staff...It's going to be almost impossible for me to continue to operate with the proposed budget that you have laid out before you...,” County Attorney Gutierrez said. I would ask that you reconsider in refiling the proposed budget and give me the funds I need to operate...If I don't get them I can't guarantee that I will be able to operate my office for the entire 26 pay period.”

District Judge Baldemar Garza went before the court and said that if Duval County can't afford some of his staff he will request it from Starr County. He warned of consequences for the county removing certain position. He also explained to the court that if the county went with a two percent reduction for his courtroom the budget would only allow court in Duval County for approximately 14 times a year.

District Judge Garza went on to tell the court that the county auditor's office needs training. An external auditor told him the trouble for Duval County is that the employees at the auditor's office needs training, but the county won't spend the money to train the auditors.

After the three elected officials, County JudgeSaenz made a recommendation to the commissioners.

“The recommendation would be to adopt the budget as is with the exception of the county auditor's revised budget as submitted by the district judge,” he said.

The first motion was made by Commissioner Gilberto Uribe Jr. and seconded by Commissioner Adelina Trigo. Commissioners David Garza and Rene Perez voted against the motion for the budget. The motion passed with judge as tie breaker.