Commissioner says budget won’t allow pay hike

Dozens of Brownsville residents attend a public Cameron County Commission Chambers Board Meeting Tuesday morning at the Dancy Building to oppose Cameron County commissioners giving themselves over $40,000 raises annually and to give Annova LNG a tax abatement for the proposed LNG plant near the Port of Brownsville, which was tabled at the meeting.

The Cameron County Commissioners Court pulled the plug on proposed pay raises for county elected officials Tuesday, while a proposed tax abatement for Annova LNG was tabled.

Both were contentious issues that packed the courtroom with members of the public eager to speak, though comments were heard only after Precinct 2 Commissioner Joey Lopez pronounced the salary issue dead on arrival due to a budget shortfall that came to light during an Aug. 19 budget workshop.

“As of the review of the budget yesterday, there’s definitely no money for elected officials’ raises right now,” he said. “After we reviewed all items, without considering elected officials raises, we’re still about half a million in the red. So we will not be awarding or looking at any kind of raises for elected officials.”

These comments elicited applause from the crowded courtroom.

At a regular meeting on Aug. 6, commissioners approved compensation caps recommended by Lopez in an effort to get officials’ pay closer to that of their peers across the state. He noted that the county’s elected officials rank third from the bottom among the state’s 254 counties in terms of compensation.

For County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr., maximum pay was set at $119,400, including a $9,000 automobile allowance and $5,400 in juvenile board compensation, up from the $70,743 he now makes as county judge, including juvenile board compensation.

For commissioners, the maximum was $81,760, including automobile allowances, up from the current $48,116. The cap for Precinct 1 Commissioner Sofia Benavides, who does not take an automobile allowance, was set at $80,800.

The actual amount of the raises somewhere under the ceiling was to be voted on Aug. 19, though Trevino said on Aug. 16 that he opposed raising pay to the maximum and that a “much more reasonable number” should be found.

Trevino said his first concern as incoming county judge three years ago was adjusting compensation for the county’s poorly paid rank-and-file employees. The second and third phases of that three-phase process is still under consideration by commissioners and will be on the agenda for Sept. 17.

“As long as we can continue to take care of our employees I think that’s very, very important. … It will always be a priority over the elected officials,” Trevino said.

Elected officials’ compensation also needed attention, however, due to years of neglect on the part of the court, he said.

“That’s why we’re at such a disparate rate,” Trevino said. “Some people may say that this is a part-time job. All I can tell is that from my perspective it’s not. I’m literally on call 24/7, and that’s fine. I knew that coming in.”

Benavides said she agreed with raising officials’ compensation incrementally, in small amounts, rather than all at once.

“I know that I work hard and I know that every other commissioner and the judge work hard,” she said. “I think there’s been a lot done in the past two, three years.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner David Garza said he does not support raises for county elected officials aside from minimal increases if the budget allows, and that his stance has nothing to do with his plans to seek reelection.

“Yes, there is a huge disparity in pay between us and … other counties in the state of Texas, but that’s a choice that Cameron County has made in their salary structure for many, many years,” he said.

A number of anti-LNG protesters showed up at the meeting, and most of the speakers were there to express opposition to a tax break for Annova LNG, one of three companies that want to build liquefied natural gas terminals at the Port of Brownsville and are awaiting final approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Some commenters said the tax abatement agenda item should have been voted on rather than tabled by commissioners. The point was made repeatedly that a tax abatement for Annova makes no sense, since the company already wants to come here and doesn’t need to be lured by a multimillion-dollar tax break.

Others said an abatement amounts to a reward for Annova to come and wreak environmental havoc, with no clear payoff in terms of jobs or economic development. The company behind the Annova project is Chicago-based Exelon Corporation, a Fortune 100 company that generated $35.9 billion in revenue in 2018.

The Sierra Club released a statement Tuesday afternoon quoting organizer Rebekah Hinojosa, who said “our county needs more revenue, not less.”

“This tax cut deal faces significant public opposition because it would sell out our community’s health and safety for the benefit of a polluting corporation,” she said.

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com