Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Merry Xmas! here's your bonus....Shhh!

WTF? Payments as Christmas bonuses to county employees?

What kind of folks think that this is legit?

Certainly not the AG's office. BTW can I get a Christmas bonus?

Frio officials mum on pay ‘supplements'
By Sara Inés Calderón - SAEN

PEARSALL —The Frio County tax assessor-collector and county clerk have been using money from fees collected by their departments to give salary “supplements” to their employees in violation of the state Government Code.
Two months after receiving Texas attorney general opinions saying the bonuses were improper, officials here remain tight-lipped about how many years the practice went on and how much money was involved.

What seems clear is that the two department heads routinely awarded the bonuses — one of them said it started 35 years ago — despite the fact that the commissioner's court holds sole authority over county salaries. In some cases, the bonuses were in sums that exceeded employees' monthly pay.

The opinions were prompted by County Attorney Hector Lozano, who wrote separate letters Dec. 26 and 27 asking the attorney general's office if the “inconsistent procedure” in each of the two offices violated state law.
Lozano did not return repeated requests for comment left at his office. In one letter, he described an impasse that began late last year when County Auditor Mary Hornbostel discovered the practice and refused to authorize requests for the pay supplements submitted to her by County Clerk Angie Tullis starting in December 2007.
Hornbostel was unavailable for comment.

Lozano also wrote that Anna L. Alaniz, the county tax collector, asked him to seek the opinion on her bonus procedure.
In separate opinions released June 30, Attorney General Gregg Abbott said the bonuses given to Alaniz's and Tullis' employees violated the law. Only the commissioners court can set employee salaries, and that includes bonuses, he wrote.

Frio County commissioners discussed the opinions with District Attorney René Peña in closed session at a July 28 special meeting. County Judge Carlos Garcia declined to comment on the matter, saying only that commissioners would take action later.
Two commissioners declined to talk about the matter, and another did not return phone calls.
The only commissioner to comment, José “Pepe” Flores, said the two departments had been directed to change their policies. Asked if either would have to reconcile the fees to the account they should have been deposited into, Flores said no decision had been made.
“We just discussed the problem” in executive session, he said. “We didn't discuss what we were going to do.”

Justice of the Peace Arnulfo Luna, who also supplements his employees' salaries but does so with budgets approved by the commissioners, said he was upset at how the commissioners have handled the issue.
“These people were giving bonuses left and right,” he said of Alaniz and Tullis. “People are already getting paid for doing a job and they are getting extra money for doing the same thing. Why was it being allowed?”

Luna also expressed concerns about the commissioners' waffling on whether they would obligate the departments to repay the money to the county.
Alaniz did not return several requests for comment left at her office and on her cell phone.
Tullis said Thursday that supplementing the salaries of her deputies from fees collected by her office was a practice begun 35 years ago by former County Clerk Mona Hoyle. Tullis said the staff had come to expect the supplements as part of their employment.

However, Hoyle, who retired as county clerk 12 years ago, said she wasn't aware of the practice.
“This couldn't have been my policy because nobody got supplemental pay,” Hoyle said. “Everybody was on salary. There's never been any bonus for any county employee as far as I know.”
The supplements in the tax assessor-collector's office came from motor vehicle title fees, which can be used by the county to pay salaries — but only the commissioners court may allocate the money, according to the attorney general's opinion.

The opinion said there is no legal basis to provide extra compensation to salaried employees of the tax assessor-collector, who “does not have authority to award the certificate of title application fee to the offices' employees.”

Supplement checks for the county clerk's three deputies sometimes amounted to more than their individual monthly salaries, according to Lozano's letter. Fees collected by the office were not managed as directed by state law and were allowed to accumulate under Tullis' control in a cash reserve of more than $50,000, a fund that Lozano wrote was being used only to supplement the pay of her employees.
Lozano's letter said the practice had been going on in “recent years,” but did not specify when it began. Tullis took office in 2003.

The opinion on the clerk's supplements said that although money from this account may be used for salaries, such compensation can be only for work related to managing and preserving records. And again, only the commissioners court has the authority to say how the money is used or to set salaries.

Frio County Treasurer Anna Hernandez, who according to Lozano's letter cut the supplement checks upon the department heads' request, said the bonuses at Christmas amounted to $1,000 to $1,500 per employee.

Hernandez said the supplements were budgeted for, and had to have the approval of commissioners. But Lozano's letters to the attorney general said the procedures used by Tullis and Alaniz to allocate the bonuses bypassed the commissioners.

Hernandez backed Tullis' contention that she did not knowingly do anything improper.
“I'm not sure she understood she was supplementing the girls,” Hernandez said. “If you ask me, I think it was an honest mistake.”

Commissioner Flores didn't recall seeing the supplements in any budgets the court passed, stressing that none of the commissioners knew what was going on.
“Until it was brought to their attention, I think the court thought it was being done properly,” he said. “I don't think nobody knew exactly what was being done.”