Budget talks guide discussion tied to El Paso County bond projects

Commissioners debate need, cost of a countywide radio system

County approves over budget radio project

EL PASO, Texas - Weeks of debate, arguments and budget struggles were finally put to rest during Monday's El Paso County Commissioner court meeting. Commissioners voted 4 to 0 to approve a countywide radio system despite its price tag that has ballooned to $5.8 million over budget.

Sheriff Richard Wiles has called the radios a necessity. After the meeting, he seemed chipper, stating that he was confident things were heading down the right path.

County Judge Veronica Escobar called the vote "easy," voicing her opinion to push forward and allow the project was popular because it was tied to law enforcement.

"The hard part for us is we have an obligation to every other department as well," said Escobar.

Commissioner Carlos Leon and Sergio Lewis both supported an immediate shift in funds, but settled for the middle-ground presented by Perez. It led to a unanimous vote that was somewhat unexpected after lengthy debates in past meetings.

"I feel that the most critical tool that an office has, a deputy has, is his or her ability to communicate," said Leon, the former chief of the El Paso Police Department.

Lewis echoed those statements during public comment. A regular at the meeting referred to the request as a money grab, telling a parable of seagulls lunging for food on a beach. Lewis told him it was a nice story, but pointed out that safety was an issue.

Commissioner Vince Perez has voiced concerns, questioning whether the court is looking forward or just plugging gaps as they pop up.

"We don't know for sure we're going to get those savings," said Perez, pointing out overages are simply theoretical at this point. He has proposed changes to sheriff's projects that are underway to find more funding over the past week.

After more debate, everyone agreed to vote for the new radio system with a contingency attached. Commissioner Vince Perez requested that all efforts be exhausted to find the money within current El Paso County Sheriff's Office projects. That includes a roof project, and several construction projects tied to the new jail annex addition. If the money cannot be found within those projects only then will overages from other county projects, be looked into.

Currently there is at least $6 million expected from various 2012 bond projects that came under budget. That includes a software purchase that is expected to be more than $4 million under budget.

For more information on this story, and future El Paso County commissioner stories, follow ABC-7s Matthew Smith on Twitter at @MattSmithABC7.

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