UPDATE: Zapata County Commissioners giving back salary raises they gave themselves

Border Report

'Irresponsible decision' spurred 1,000 to sign petitions against pay hikes

Zapata County Commissioners voted themselves a pay raise for Fiscal 2022, despite a budget deficit. On Friday, Oct. 8, the entire court declined a salary increase. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — After much public outcry, the four Zapata County commissioners on Friday said they were not accepting the pay raises they had voted to give themselves just weeks ago.

Several other Zapata County elected officials, including the sheriff, county treasurer, county clerk, district clerk also said Friday they were refusing the pay raises for Fiscal 2022, Zapata County Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Thatcher told Border Report.

During a commission meeting on Friday morning, all four commissioners told a packed courthouse that they were sorry for what one commissioner called an “irresponsible decision” to give themselves a 17% pay increase to $50,000 for this fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

They all said they would sign an affidavit to give back the pay raise and to revert their pay to Fiscal 2021 salary levels.

Zapata County Commissioner Court on Oct. 8, 2021, from left: Norberto Garza, Joey Solis, Judge Joe Rathmell, Olga Elizondo and Paco Mendoza. (Screen shot from hearing)

“Although we can no longer amend the budget, and I voted in favor of the raise, I also decided to sign the affidavit to reduce my salary back to what it was in 2020-21,” Commissioner Joey Solis said.

Solis had proposed the salary increase, which commissioners voted in on Sept. 27. The raise also applied to all elected officials in the county in rural South Texas.

Zapata County is a rural ranching community of just 14,000 residents an hour east of Laredo, Texas, on the border with Mexico. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell, however, opposed the salary increase and signed an affidavit with the county’s treasurer and refused to take a salary increase.

The county has been for years operating on a budget deficit. And border travel restrictions that have been in place since March 2020 have limited those coming from Mexico to spend money in Zapata County.

On Friday, after over 1,000 residents had signed a petition and dozens showed up at the county courthouse, all four commissioners did the same and rescinded their pay raises.

“I heard you loud and clear,” Solis said. “I want to thank the community for coming together and working together. … I see what this rattled up and I’m listening.”

“I see what this rattled up and I’m listening.”

Zapata County commissioner joey solis

“If this amount of interest had been present (at the first hearing) I guarantee you the board’s direction would have been different. But now that we see all of you here today we are here to represent you. We are your voice. We are elected by you and to serve you,” Commissioner Paco Mendoza said. “Now that we know there are so many of you against this — and it was perhaps an irresponsible decision on our part — we’re here to make things right. So I too also reject the salary increase.”

Commissioner Olga Elizondo also said she would sign the affidavit and thanked so many citizens for attending Friday’s meeting.

Earlier this week, Elizondo told Border Report that she wished more residents would get involved with county issues and show up and speak up.

Rathmell praised their decisions in court on Friday.

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell is seen June 4, 2020, on family ranchlands in Zapata County. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

“I applaud commissioners for reconsidering and basically that is the only option that we have. The statute regarding elected officials’ salaries is very clear: Once it’s approved at commissioners’ court meeting and a hearing has been held, we can’t do a Round 2 and say, ‘we don’t want it anymore.’ The only way is by affidavits that the commissioners have stated this morning. That is the remedy,” Rathmell told the court.

Thatcher, who heads the county’s Republican Party, told Border Report after the hearing that she is relieved that so many elected officials are giving back their salary increases.

“A lot of people from the county showed up to voice their concerns and I’m very proud that this little petition woke the sleeping giants in the county,” Thatcher said via phone.

However, she pointed out that four justices of peace still hadn’t come forward to say they will sign affidavits to give back the money. All four are up for reelection.

The four are to receive the largest pay bumps in the county: a 45% increase from $32,000 to $45,000.

An online petition started by Thatcher garnered almost 700 signatures and raised $430. All of the funds were presented in a check on Friday to the local food pantry, Thatcher said.

Another paper petition had gotten 300 signatures and more were coming in as of Friday morning, she said.

“I’m glad that some elected officials reflected and they did decline and sign the affidavit. We’re just waiting for other elected officials who are up for re-election and haven’t signed affidavit like the justices of the peace for precincts 1, 2, 3, and 4,” she said.

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