2017-09-13 / Front Page

Auditor gets more help

BY ALLEN ESSEX
Reporter

Willacy County Judge Aurelio “Keter” Guerra said Tuesday an order to add another full time and part-time employee to the Auditor’s Office budget for the year beginning Oct. 1 will make it impossible to restore four positions in other departments to full-time jobs after they were cut to half-time during a recent budget crisis.

Also, other needs such as radar guns for constables will be cut from the budget, Guerra said.

Auditor Ida Martinez presently has a staff of four fulltime “first assistant auditors,” a part-time auditor and herself, the county judge said. Under an order by 197th state District Judge Migdalia Lopez, Martinez gets to add 1 1/2 positions, bringing the number of people to five full-time positions plus herself, Guerra said. Her total office budget will increase from $423,608 to $530,785.

Martinez’s personal salary will not change in the new budget. It is $93,000 a year with benefits raising the total to $114,000.

Only the auditor’s office budget is under control of the district court, Guerra said. The rest of the county’s budget is set by a vote of the county judge and commissioner’s court.

The commissioners’ court had planned to give employees a one-time stipend based on the number of years they have worked for the county, Guerra said. The increase in the auditor’s office will make it difficult to do that, but other cuts are going to be made in order to pay those amounts but jobs that were reduced to part-time will have to stay that way, he said.

He and commissioners are adjusting department spending to keep with the plan of holding spending that is now $7.1 million to almost the same level at $7.24 million . The tax rate will stay at 74 cents for each $100 in taxable property value, Guerra said.

During last Thursday’s budget hearing, Judge Lopez explained that past problems that plunged Willacy County into financial crises several times, resulting in job layoffs and loss of benefits for employees, makes her feel it is necessary to keep a close watch on county finances.

Some of those problems have been as a result of corrupt acts, others because of economic conditions.

“I try to save Willacy County money,” Lopez said. “I love Willacy County. The auditor’s office needs to keep a perfectly clean Willacy County money.”

One of the ways she has saved Willacy County money is by moving capital murder (possible death penalty) cases to Cameron County. Willacy County cannot afford the additional security, expert witnesses and investigators requested by defense attorneys and other associated costs of holding such high-profile trials, she said.

Financial disasters in Willacy County have spanned several administrations dating back to at least the 1980s and have hurt the county’s credit rating and damaged its reputation.

Judge Lopez said that one of the ways the county has been damaged is that it has lost out on opportunities to get grants from the state and federal governments.

By adding to the auditor’s staff, not only will there be less chance of theft or corruption, funds will be used more wisely, Lopez said.

“These recommendations will save Willacy County money,” she said.

County Judge Guerra said the total budget for Willacy County’s auditor’s office is twice what 25 other counties of similar size spend.

He will, of course, comply with Lopez’s order to increase the auditor’s budget and make adjustments to fit the costs into the budget, Guerra said.

Guerra said he previously asked Lopez that, if the auditor’s staff is increased, if that office can take over auditing three public facilities corporations that finance the U.S. Marshal’s detention facility, the county jail and the former “tent city” property that has been purchased by Management and Training Corp.

Judge Lopez had promised to research whether the auditor’s office can do that, he said. The county spends a total of $22,500 a year to audit the books on those facilities.

Conversely, he had offered to move the county payroll bookkeeping back to the Treasurer’s Office but Lopez decided to keep that within the auditor’s office, Guerra said.

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