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SAN BENITO — After weeks of debate aimed at pushing low employee wages closer to market salaries, the city’s new commission is passing a proposed $16.8 million general fund balance focusing on building up the work force to offer better services.
Earlier this week, commissioners passed the first reading of the proposed budget coming with a fat $16.1 million fund balance — the highest cash cache in the city’s history.
Commissioners are planning to keep the city’s property tax rate at 70 cents per $100 valuation.
“When I got on the commission in 2018, I saw a lack of appreciation for our workers,” Mayor Rick Guerra said in an interview. “I’m going to fight for them. I’ll be their voice. I’m glad we have the money to bring some up to par. We’re starting off.”
Compared with the current $15.8 million general fund budget, the proposed budget comes with $559,958 worth of increased expenditures covering salaries, proposed salary expenses, equipment purchases and employee health insurance costs, David Favila, the city’s spokesman, said.
“The budget shows the commission is strong in employee pay and benefits so we can retain quality employees,” Commissioner Pete Galvan said in an interview. “The city of San Benito is going to be a great place to work with the passage of this budget.”
City Manager search
In closed session, commissioners reviewed about eight applications for the city manager’s job, open since June 6, when they agreed to buy out former City Manager Manuel De La Rosa’s contract for about $200,000.
After the meeting, Commissioner Tom Goodman argued the search was moving too slow.
“We’re not doing our city a service by not focusing on this item,” he said in an interview.
For months, Goodman’s been calling on commissioners to hire a recruiting firm to conduct the search for San Benito’s next city manager.
But Galvan said the city’s search is on track.
“Things take time,” he said. “We’re only two months into the process and we have applications on the table. Would this be sped up if we hire a firm? I don’t think so. Bring two firms to the table and let them present to see what they have to offer. They’re going to do the same things we’re doing — posting on the same websites.”
Galvan said commissioners could better conduct the search, arguing a recruiting firm wouldn’t “understand the needs of the city.”
“We’ve been living here all our lives, so we’re qualified,” he said.
Like Galvan, Commissioner Debra Morales said hiring a search firm would cost $25,000 to $50,000.
During their search, officials have been advertising for the job on the Texas Municipal League’s website, Indeed and the city’s website, hunting for candidates experienced in municipal management, water and sewer operations and economic development, Galvan said.
Meanwhile, other key positions remain vacant, including those of assistant city manager and human resources director.
First pay scale
At City Hall, interim City Manager Ruth McGinnis, the city’s longtime city secretary, is leading Assistant Finance Director Stephanie Sarrionadia and department heads in drafting the budget.
As part of the proposed budget, commissioners approved the city’s first pay scale, in part boosting its minimum hourly wage from $10 to $11.24.
Officials did not have information on the amount of the pay package readily available.
The employee pay increases mark the city’s biggest move to boost workers’ wages in years.
“We realized we had to increase our wages to be competitive to help our people — and we’re happy to do it,” Goodman said. “It’s a significant budget that puts us in a position to grow. If we can hire and retain the people we need, we can effect the change in town that we need — beautification of parks, picking up the trash.”
As part of the proposed budget, commissioners are setting aside about $1 million to cover employee health insurance costs, including medical, dental and vision, for about 125 City Hall employees, officials said.
“This could be a 40% increase for some employees, when you factor in health insurance and pay increases,” Goodman said.
Meanwhile, most employees are up for 3% pay increases, Guerra said.
“If the pay increase is more than 3%, then they’ll get the pay increase,” Goodman said.
Across City Hall, low wages have helped lead all departments to run about three to four employees short, Goodman said.
“Because we have not paid a lower wage, we often ran short of employees, so we’ve been understaffed,” he said. “Each department is three to four employees short.”
Short-staffing has helped stack up unspent money, Goodman said.
“We have a lot of carry-over dollars because we didn’t have people employed,” he said.
On July 14, commissioners appointed McGinnis interim city manager, replacing veteran administrator Gavino Sotelo, a former Harlingen city manager who previously served as general manager of the Laguna Madre Water District.
During a meeting, Sotelo suddenly resigned amid a contract dispute, three weeks into the job.
On June 6, commissioners voted 4-1 to buy out De La Rosa’s contract for about $200,000, rejecting his offer to stay on the job for up to 60 days, with Commissioner Carol Lynn Sanchez casting the dissenting vote.