Radio debate continues, could new county building be in the works?

El Paso County's budget remains center stage as debates continue

Numbers crunching on county budget continues

EL PASO, Texas - County dollars and expenditures remain under the microscope this week.

Last month, a debate tied to a new P25 radio system for the county sheriff spurred questions and discussion about how tax dollars should be used. The new radio system would allow for better communication within the department. It also happens to be several million dollars over-budget.

On Thursday, the El Paso County auditor highlighted options to fund the project. Over the course of a 3 ½-hour meeting past capital improvement project savings were highlighted.

Reaching back as far as 2001, $1.6 million was highlighted that remains to be spent. That money, however, will likely not be sent toward new county radios. Instead, the county auditor highlighted savings within the 2012 bond issuance. That year, the county issued $110 million in bonds to cover various projects. Less than a year later, officials believe they've found multiple projects that can make up the difference.

Commissioner Vince Perez has voiced concern over the idea of shifting money from one project to another. It's common practice; however, he has raised an issue over county priorities. As quickly as a $4 million surplus was identified in one project, the radio project that needed $5.8 million was brought up.

Perez told ABC-7 that quickly shifting money isn't always the best option.

"Some projects come under, some come over," explained Perez. "I think there needs to be a detailed priorities list in event there is savings. What is going to happen with that savings?"

Perez points to an elevator project for the county courthouse that needs funding and a public-defenders office spread out between four floors of that same building without any rhyme or reason.

County Judge Veronica Escobar echoed Perez's statements, adding county vehicles to the list of issues within the county.

"What is frustrating to me is I've been trying to get the court to a point where we are actually in front of these issues," said Escobar.

During Thursday's special county meeting, Escobar pointed to long-talked-about plans for a new county administration building. For more than a year, rumors have swirled about a county building that would house administrative staff on top floors, while serving as a parking garage to create a revenue source. Early talks of that plan pointed toward a building located on Overland Drive, where the county currently owns a surface parking lot.

Right now, more than $17 million from the 2012 bond issuance is linked to road construction to the ongoing Tornillo Port of Entry project. There is hope that TXDOT, or another entity, would step in and complete the project. If they did, it'd free up the type of capital required to begin making steps toward making that new building a reality. However, it would likely require additional funds, funds that may be getting pushed toward a radio system instead.

"Right now, what's on the table is something I don't think we can close our eyes to," said Commissioner Sergio Lewis.

Lewis has fought for P25 money. He's called it a public safety issue, but reassured constituents during past meetings that he's looking at the budget as well. However, with discounts for the new radio system tied to a speedy timeline, he's been adamant that the money is there and that the county should pull the trigger.

A final decision on the radio project is expected during the county's regularly scheduled meeting on Monday. Commissioners Carlos Leon and Lewis have long said they plan to back the radios. A third vote would be needed to approve the radios. That vote would have to come from Escobar or Perez, as the fifth seat on the court remains empty in the wake of Dan Haggerty's death. Escobar hinted during an interview that the radio system was necessary; whether she is ready to vote now remains to be seen. 

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