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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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?”
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.
“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.
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.
“I'm not sure she understood she was supplementing the girls,” Hernandez said. “If you ask me, I think it was an honest mistake.”
“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.”