Rural South Texas commissioners give themselves pay raise as border county is in debt

Border Report

Zapata County Commissioners voted themselves a pay raise for Fiscal 2022 but the county is in the red. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Residents of rural Zapata County, Texas, on the Texas-Mexico border are signing a petition to try to force county commissioners to reverse a pay raise they gave themselves for Fiscal Year 2022, despite a county budget shortfall.

The four-member Zapata County Commissioners’ Court on Sept. 27 approved a 17% pay raise, bringing their annual salaries to $50,000, up from $42,686.

They also voted pay raises for all county elected officials, including the treasurer, constables, sheriff, judges, and a 45% increase for justices of the peace, whose salary jumped from $32,000 to $45,000, Zapata County Commissioner Olga Elizondo told Border Report.

Zapata County Commissioners are seen on June 14, 2021 during a public meeting. (Screen shot)

But this isn’t sitting well with community members, especially Zapata County Republican Party Chairwoman Jennie Thatcher, who has launched an online petition to try to force commissioners to reconsider their pay raise.

“We are listening to our fellow citizens reaching out to us to stand up and be a voice for them and we are proud to lead the effort for each and every Zapata citizen taxpayer to try to persuade our County Commissioners to reverse this decision and return their salaries to 2020-2021 amounts, in light of our County’s million-dollar deficit and as well as other county departments that are suffering financially,” Thatcher said in a statement.

The petition has over 600 signatures, which is substantial for this remote ranching border county of just 14,000 residents that is located east of Webb County and Laredo, and west of Starr County in the Rio Grande Valley.

Some online comments posted with the petition question whether commissioners work full-time for the county, or not, and criticize a pay raise at a time when the county has a budget deficit.

Revenues in South Texas have been hit hard during the coronavirus pandemic and the border still remains closed to non-essential workers and travelers.

Zapata County, Texas, is located on the Texas/Mexico border, about 60 miles east of Laredo. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

The petition is requesting commissioners reconsider the pay raises during their next meeting on Friday.

But on Tuesday afternoon, Elizondo spoke with the county’s lawyer who told her that the budget has been enacted and fully voted upon and the pay raises are in effect and cannot be reversed. Any elected official who wishes not to accept the pay raise can sign a special form with the county treasurer’s office.

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell voted against the pay raises and has said he will accept the same salary from Fiscal 2021.

Read the Zapata County budget for Fiscal 2022.

Elizondo voted for the pay raises and said county elected officials have not had a bump in pay in over 15 years. She has been on the county commission for seven years and she says this is her full-time job and she feels a salary increase is warranted.

“Every year that the county increases or gives some kind of pay raise to county employees well the elected officials never have gotten a pay increase. So it was proposed from one of the county commissioners during our first budget hearing,” Elizondo told Border Report. “If people were not happy with it that they would have showed up when we had our budget hearing. But it was like a month ago and nobody showed up.”

Actually, one gentleman from the public was at the hearing, Elizondo clarified. And apparently, that was the only hearing held to discuss the $15.5 million annual budget for this county.

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell, seen on June 10, 2021, declined a pay raise. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

With no incorporated cities within the county, the commissioners’ court is the region’s most powerful elected public servants.

“The majority of the departments hold the line, but the Commissioners don’t, so I think we need to look at ourselves,” Rathmell said in a statement sent Tuesday by Thatcher. “The only ones that abuse the budget are the commissioners themselves. The majority of the abuse, and I am calling it abuse, is in the court.”

Elizondo said she encourages residents to become more active in local politics and to attend meetings and learn more about community services and costs.

“I really wish people would attend more budget hearings so they’ll know what’s going on and if there’s something they don’t like, that’s what we’re there for as county commissioners,” Elizondo said. “I didn’t get any calls.”

She added that the initial budget proposed by Rathmell had a $1.5 million budget shortfall and she criticized that he is prone to submitting annual budgets that don’t balance and rely on transferring money from the county’s general fund to cover expenses during the year.

“So it’s not like he proposed a balanced budget. His budget was in the red. So regardless of the increase of the pay raise, it was still going to be in the red. Maybe a bit higher or lower, I’m not sure about the numbers,” she said.

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