Photo:  Lori Ardoin, Orange County director of human resources, spoke before commissioners’ court during Tuesday’s discussion of possible pay raises for elected officials.

 

Dave Rogers

For The Record

Orange County commissioners Tuesday took tentative first steps toward what they hope is a pay raise for all of the county’s 250-odd non-sworn employees.

They did it by voting 4-1 in favor of a proposal to raise the total salary, cell phone and car allowances of 18 elected officials – including themselves – by an average of just less than $10,000 apiece.

County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton said the odds look good for the county’s emergency fund balance to hit $12 million this year – the 25 percent of the annual budget suggested by the Texas Association of Counties to set aside for a rainy day.

“I’m sure everybody’s aware the county hasn’t been in the best shape,” Carlton said. “Four years ago, we had an overall deficit budget.

“But we’ve been keeping a close eye on our financials and there’s a very good chance we’ll hit $12 million this year and hitting that frees up money for employee raises.”

The proposal formulated by Lori Ardoin, director of human resources, would raise the county judge’s county pay more than anyone else’s, from $85,500 to $100,000.

She said the big increase was so the county judge, by law the top county official, would make more than the sheriff.

But Carlton turned down his proposed raise at the same time as he voted for the package.

“I’ll vote in favor, but I’ll be filing to defer any potential increase until the next term,” he said.

Later, Carlton explained, “I don’t think the people that control the money should vote themselves raises in their current terms. I’ll stay at $85,500 until the next election.”

Carlton, who has said he’ll run for re-election next year, also receives a $25,200 state salary for handling judicial court cases.

Commissioner Jody Crump said he voted against the proposal, because, “I’d like to wait until we find out what we can do for the employees.”

Carlton and all four commissioners stressed the elected officials’ pay package is only a potential raise and subject to being changed or eliminated during before the 2017-18 budget is finalized.

Also, they stressed, they any potential raises were for the offices, not the current office holders.

“Last year we had the same discussion,” Commissioner Barry Burton reminded. “We had a proposed raise [for elected officials]. As we got into the budget we realized that there was not enough there for a raise for the employees, so when it came time to adopt the budget, we kept elected officials salaries the same.

“This is the same exercise, same process here. We’re looking like [this year], we can potentially give a raise. This is a potential raise, to keep the door open, while we get further into the budget process and see if we can give employees one.”

The law requires salary increases for elected officials to be posted for a period of weeks before their raises can legally be included in the 2017-18 budget.

That is why, commissioners said, the elected officials’ salaries are considered ahead of other employees.

Burton suggested changing the order, though.

“I suggest that elected officials get raises the same as other employees, but a year later,” he said.

Under the proposed changes, the sheriff would get one of the smaller salary boosts, from $96,000 to $99,500. The sheriff is currently the highest paid elected official not presiding over a state courtroom.

All justices of the peace would make base salaries of $67,000 per year, same as all four county commissioners.

Base salaries for county clerk, district clerk, tax assessor-collector and county treasurer would be $72,000. Constables would see a tiny salary raise from $65,818 to $68,000 but Ardoin factored in that those four should be paying less for transportation since the county voted recently to furnish them cars.

Other elected officials not included in Tuesday’s vote were both county court-at law judges, three district judges and the district attorney. Much of their pay comes from the state, Burton explained.

Ardoin’s plan included $720 per year for cell phone allowances for all 18 elected officials, plus annual auto allowances of $1,000 for the two clerks, tax assessor and treasurer and $3,600 each for justices of the peace and the five members of the county court.

One county expense is longevity pay, which each county employee receives after five years. It grows from $180 per year for five years to $2,100 per year for 25-year employees and continues to increase for long-timers.

Tuesday was a busy one that began with attorney Steve Bird reporting the county is owed $3.8 million in delinquent property taxes – down from $4.5 million in April — and analyst Chris Pruitt delivered a cheery Annual Financial Report for the 2016 fiscal year.

“His summary was the county is moving in the right direction, doing better,” Carlton said. “I think Orange County is significantly better than it was three years ago.”

Making the best of a bad situation – rising costs, plus “a really tough year for the county with high claims,” Ardoin said – commissioners approved an employee insurance plan that will raise individual deductibles to $3,000 and cost Orange County an additional $500,000.

This vote was 4-0 with Crump abstaining, saying he had a conflict of interest.