The 2014 budget was just finalized a week ago by El Paso County leaders, but new ideas and plans for this year’s fiscal policy has angered several well-known El Pasoans.
Sheriff Richard Wiles, District Attorney Jaime Esparza and District Clerk Norma Favela came out against proposals that would give county commissioners more oversight of county department budgets. All three rallied against changes that would require permission to transfer amounts worth more than 10 percent of their budget from accounts.
Previously, it was up to elected officials and department heads to handle their budgets. If money was needed for one item, they could shift money from another spot. Now, after a 4 to 1 vote, more oversight from commissioners will be given.
“You’re going to save $1 but it’s going to cost you more than that,” argued Esparza. He continued by calling the idea an extra layer of bureaucracy.
The sheriff chose even more direct language, addressing that he believed people were upset because he’s shifted money in the past. He told commissioners he understood there were complaints during the past two-month long budget session because he took money out of his account for utilities to fix a security gate. He said the move was made after talking to auditors, and that there was no reason for oversight because it was already in place.
“This is the kind of stuff that’s going to take time away from us doing our business,” said Wiles.
Commissioners Patrick Abeln and Vince Perez, along with county judge Veronica Escobar, tried to find a middle ground. Escobar suggested making it easier for the officials to meet with the auditor instead of making them come before the commissioners in person. Abeln suggested raising the amount that requires approval from 5 percent of a department’s budget to 10 percent. Once the percentage was raised, Commissioner Lewis joined the group, stating that his ultimate goal was to keep an eye on the budget. The changes didn't sway the sheriff or the district attorney.
“I’d hate to keep punting it down the road,” said Perez, in reaction to several requests to backtrack the language and readdress it at a later date.
Perez went on to say there is a financial situation that the county needs to address now, and that allowing department heads and elected officials the power to shift money at will wasn’t helping the issue.
Commissioner Carlos Leon said he didn’t think the idea would save money. He pointed out that he wouldn’t have supported this as a city employee when he worked as the El Paso police chief, adding that he couldn’t support it in his new position as a county commissioner.
Sheriff Wiles questioned the purpose in a last-second plea before the vote, accusing commissioners of trying to “lock money up” so they can handle the county’s budget instead of individual departments.
Ultimately, the commissioners went against the department heads, and passed new budget protocols. Escobar, Lewis, Perez and Abeln voted to approve the new policy.