RIO GRANDE CITY — Starr County commissioners named a replacement for the interim tax assessor during a regular meeting of the commissioners’ court.
The vote to replace Martha Garza, who resigned abruptly last week after voicing concerns about staffing and job security at the tax assessor’s office, took place after two separate executive sessions during the meeting to discuss the status of the county’s tax assessor office which has been in a state of flux since late last year when federal and state law enforcement officials arrested a number of its employees in connection with theft of county funds.
Commissioners voted Juan M. Cantu, who is currently running for the position in the upcoming election, to replace Garza who held the interim position for less than three weeks.
At least two commissioners abstained during the vote, one of whom was Precinct 2 Commissioner Raul Peña Jr., who said he did not feel it was proper to vote for someone who was already running for the office.
“In my opinion, I would say it wouldn’t be fair for the other candidates running for tax collector. I think we should have (chosen) somebody impartial — people think he probably has an advantage toward the election — which I doubt seriously,” Peña said. “I’m pretty sure it’s unfair for the other candidate. I don’t think it’s going to make a difference in the outcome of the election — to me it really doesn’t matter.”
The other candidate, Starr County Justice of the Peace Maria Ameida Salinas, announced her candidacy for the position late last year.
But she quickly hit a roadblock in the form of County Judge Eloy Vera and the county commission after Salinas refused to resign from her post as Pct. 8 justice of the peace following her registration. According to a Texas “resign to run” provision, public officials automatically give up their current office when they declare their candidacy for another.
It also states that the officeholder may keep the position if he or she has less than a year and 30 days left in their term at the time of the announcement. Salinas replaced Ricardo Peña, who succumbed to cancer last March, about halfway into his four-year term, which expires in November.
On Monday, Vera said the commissioners decided on Cantu after they reached out to possible replacements and made at least one offer to a retired former tax collector from Roma who declined the position.
“Really, nobody wants to come in and work for a few months to get rid of a job that they currently have to work for (a few months). For that reason, it’s difficult to get someone. Therefore we didn’t have very many choices — we have people who are willing to come in and help us, but not as tax assessor collector,” Vera said. “We don’t have the luxury of waiting months to interview and all this stuff, we just needed to get someone so we can get back to business, therefore that’s why Cantu was the choice of the court.”
Vera said he hopes the office will re-open by Thursday, at the latest, after Cantu is officially bonded through the state and receives some training.
Concerns about understaffing were also addressed Monday morning after the commissioners decided to authorize Cantu to hire another three people to staff the tax assessor’s office during the busy month.
“I feel very good about the decision and finally we’ll have some stability. It will take a few days or a week or so before the dust settles but I believe that we will get back on track. I think now all questions are pretty much answered — there’s no uncertainty — and I think that’s one of the main reasons why we haven’t gotten the dust to settle,” Vera said.
The instability at the office began when the county’s tax assessor, Carmen Peña, and seven employees were arrested in connection with the theft of more than $700,000 in taxpayer funds.
The arrests came after a more than three-year investigation into the theft of county funds in a scheme that possibly dates as far back as 2009 when the county auditor’s office noticed discrepancies during its audits.
The tax assessor employees allegedly took cash payments from county residents, registered the payment as a check received months earlier in the official county records, and then pocketed the cash.
Tax assessor employees also allegedly registered vehicles with fake addresses and fake names. They also are accused of claiming the vehicles were gifts for charitable organizations. One person had registered more than 300 vehicles to a P.O. Box in Rio Grande City.
Vera expressed frustration with the criticism he has received from county residents and the media over the current state of the office, but squarely put the onus back on the residents of the county for their decision to elect the former tax assessor Carmen Peña.
“This is not something that I caused; this is not something the commissioner’s court caused. This is something that was caused by an elected official that was elected by the public to work for them. So the voters of, not only this county, but everywhere around here need to be more careful as to who they elect, because after this happens, then who gets to do the cleanup,” Vera said. “I need to clean everything up and I get all the heat for something I had not a damn thing to do with. That upsets me, but then again that is the nature of the beast. But I want the public to understand that this was not something that I caused or the commissioner’s court caused — it’s something that they, the voters caused.”