The County of El Paso does not have an adequate grip on its budget because the auditor oversees it and Commissioners reactively approve a budget every year, according to County Commissioner Vince Perez.
Other Commissioners though, like Carlos Leon disagree with Perez's assertion that Commissioners are not properly policing the budget.
ABC-7 through an open records request, discovered the County of El Paso will spend an unexpected $2 million more on indigent defense in fiscal year 2013. That's nearly a 50% increase from the year before. The increase stems from payments judges approve for court appointed attorneys.
County Commissioner Vince Perez believes the fact that the County Auditor is appointed by the same Judges who appoint attorneys could be one reason there's not more scrutiny on spending. "There's nothing we can do about them appointing the auditor. I do believe however that if there was a separate budget office under commissioners court, these are many of the questions that would be answered," said Perez.
Judge Yahara Lisa Gutierrez of the 65th District Court said the Auditor has a tight grip on the budget. "Even though the state law has said the Auditor is under the Council of Judges, I have to fight for everything that I get. It's not like Judge Gutierrez calls the Auditor and the Auditor says 'oh sure Judge'. It doesn't work that way. So it's not like we get preferential treatment because the Auditor is under the Council of Judges. They do their job, we don't supervise them."
The budget issue goes beyond costs associated with the Judiciary.
Currently, the Auditor's office handles and monitors the County's budget. Though every year County Commissioners set an amount, many of the costs are already accounted for by the Auditor's office and commissioners are "forced to pay up," said County Judge Veronica Escobar. Perez and her believe the budget system right now is set up in a way that has Commissioners Court reactively setting a budget every year instead of proactively policing it.
"I fundamentally do not believe that you should have an Auditor overseeing a budget that he audits. It's just not right. When we talk about the larger implications of property taxes and how it is we're going to save money, I believe that a budget office that's under Commissioners Court that is more policy driven, that's more focused and more aggressive on how we get solutions over the long term, is the best way to go. That's what's been done in other counties. El Paso has been slow to change," said Perez.
Perez and Escobar hope to bring up the issue in next year's budget talks.
Commissioner Carlos Leon said though he may not be opposed to a budget office, he has not seen the need for one just yet. "I have yet to see any kind of clash between the Auditor's office and the direction of Commissioners Court."
Leon disagrees with the idea that Commissioners reactively set the budget. He said the Auditor's office provides the Commissioner Court with updates throughout the year and outlines of each department's spending that helps Commissioners prepare for the budget months in advance. "They (the Auditor's office) are as proactive as we want them to be," Leon said.
Though he said he may consider the proposal for a separate budget office, Leon said "every single request for a new position or salary or office is scrutinized" because of the tight budget.
Escobar believes a separate budget office could consist of some current employees transferred to the new office to work under the wing of Commissioners, not the Auditor. "These positions already exist but they're under the Auditor's office. We'd have to reduce that office to start a budget office."
Other counties across Texas have adopted that model and all municipal governments in Texas have an auditing office separate from the budget office. "An auditor makes sure you're doing things right and legally. A budget office makes sure you're doing things well and saving as much money as you can." said Perez.
There's been resistance to the idea of moving employees to work directly under Commissioner Court, because then they'd be under the helm and at the mercy of politics and politicians. Escobar said the way to solve that problem is to create a County Administrator, a professional who'd manage County personnel. That idea was shot down by Commissioner earlier this year.