Travis County Leaders Give Themselves Raises

Salary move comes amid fears of shrinking budgets

As they did last year, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and three county commissioners voted yesterday (Tuesday, July 30) to give themselves and other elected officials significant raises.

The Travis County Commissioners Court

The 4-1 decision, with conservative Commissioner Gerald Daugherty in opposition, comes as the county faces state-imposed property tax revenue caps and is discussing ways to cut spending on its workforce and programs. In fact, the pay-raise vote took place just moments before the court voted to make major cap-related funding cuts to the new Public Defender’s Office.

The vote means Eckhardt will see a $15,780 raise in fiscal 2020, with the four commissioners each earning $16,200 more. Others getting pay hikes include District Attorney Margaret Moore ($25,349), County Attorney David Escamilla ($22,176), justices of the peace ($6,300 for those with at least 12 years of service), court-at-law judges (from $7,000 to $18,200, based on longevity), Sheriff Sally Hernandez ($9,700), District Clerk Velva Price and County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir ($6,600 each), and Tax Assessor-Collector Bruce Elfant ($6,500). These increases build on those awarded last year (10% for Eckhardt and 13% for commissioners) as part of the county’s three-year plan to bring all elected officials’ compensation “up to market.” By 2021, the county judge salary will be $172,300 (a 35% increase from 2017) and the commissioners will receive $151,800 (43% higher) The total cost of the raises for all elected officials comes to about $838,000 including benefits.

Previously, elected officials received annual raises in line with those given to the county’s classified employees. County human resources officers identified the amounts needed to bring compensation to market by averaging the salaries of elected officials in “comparable counties” in Texas – all of whom likewise vote on their own salaries and look at each other to see what the going rate is. Several of the state’s urban counties have already seen community pushback against the salaries for their elected officials, and staff in Travis County – the state’s fifth largest by population – included the four larger ones in their comparison set, but only one smaller. During Tuesday’s discussion, Commissioner Margaret Gómez said the county also sets rank-and-file employee pay based on comparable counties, but the classified employee set includes an even mix of larger and smaller counties.

Gómez told Daugherty that being a commissioner is a tough job that includes making tough calls, such as setting their own salaries as required by state law: “If we don’t want to do that, let’s not run for this job.” After emphasizing that being an elected official requires her to work beyond a regular 8-to-5 schedule, Gómez proposed the court bring elected officials up to “market” now, rather than over two years, to avoid revenue-cap constraints. Daugherty had major issues with that idea, calling it “an insult for us to sit here and to take over a $30,000 raise this year after taking a $13,000 raise last year,” he said. “I don’t know how we do that and look at people. I think that we deserve raises. I’m willing to have raises. I just think that this is an insulting raise.”

Both Gomez’s motion and Daugherty’s motion to keep elected officials’ compensation in line with the rank-and-file died for lack of a second. Though Daugherty and other officials can refuse their raises and take lower salaries, Travis County Public Information Officer Hector Nieto told the Chronicle that no current county official has done so to his knowledge. UPDATE (Aug. 1, 10am): From Nieto: "Regarding elected officials who have turned down parts of their salary, I was informed that Commissioner Daugherty has always taken less than the entire adopted (authorized) salary. For example, for FY19 the budgeted salary is $119,508, and [Daugherty] filled out the “Affidavit of Salary Donation” reducing the compensation set for his office to the amount of $105,575. For all the years he’s been in office he has always taken less than the adopted salary, and it has averaged about 10% less."

Earlier this summer, the court voted unanimously to spend an additional $5.8 million on increasing the county’s minimum wage from $13 to $15 an hour and increasing base pay by 3.5 percent for about 1,200 of its 5,400 positions, which were also deemed below market by a salary survey. As pointed out by Commissioner Brigid Shea, this new minimum wage remains below a living wage for many workers in the area, which, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, is $25.13 for a single parent, $15.64 each for two working adults with two children, and $18.20 each for two working adults and three children (it is $12.56 for a childless adult).

The court has decided to delay voting on across-the-board increases – expected to be at least 1% and hopefully 3% to offset rising health costs – for the more than 50% of Travis County employees not affected by either of these market-adjustment increases until the end of August, due to the Travis Central Appraisal District’s late deliverance of certified property tax rolls, upon which the county budget depends. Ultimately, Shea’s motion to adopt the raises over two years as proposed prevailed with support from Eckhardt, Gómez, and Commissioner Jeff Travillion. “For me, this is a really important philosophical issue,” Shea said. “I don’t think that democracy is well served when only the independently wealthy can afford to serve as representatives. I don’t think you get the full perspective from the community. ... We are executives; we don’t have a county administrator so we carry that burden. This is a difficult and uncomfortable action, but I think it’s warranted.”

Eckhardt pointed out that getting all the way to the proposed salaries for elected officials will be difficult once the 3.5% revenue cap is fully in effect – leading to a projected $30 million budget shortfall by 2024. “ When you don’t have a lot to squeeze out of the system,” she said “you have to really get disciplined about the want-to-haves versus the need-to-haves. ... We need to tighten our belt by $30 million over the next five years. We need to remember that in everything that we do.”

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