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Bexar County Commissioners approve water bill assistance, county pay hike

Bexar County Commissioners during their June 26, 2022 meeting
Bexar County
Screen shot from live stream
Bexar County Commissioners during their June 26, 2022 meeting

Bexar County Commissioners on Tuesday approved the launch of the federally-backed Low Income Household Water Assistance Program.

The nearly $3.8 million program supported by COVID-relief funds will run through next March.

COVID-19 wrecked household incomes. The San Antonio Water System reports at the end of May there were 19,000 water customers in the county with delinquent bills.

The county's executive director of economic and community development David Marquez said the program will have to be set up through a SAWS system that determines who is qualified to receive assistance.

"Our goal is to begin taking applications, again that's contingent on SAWS ability to get us into their system sometime in July," he said.

Other water billers include the 26 suburban cities in the county.

The county has already approved millions in federal relief dollars to assist residents with other emergency household costs since the start of the pandemic.

In other action, commissioners approved a 5% pay raise for the county's 5,000 employees due to inflation.

The pay hike will show up beginning with their July 31 paycheck. Some county retirees also approached commissioners to ask for a cost of living adjustment to their pensions during the next budget cycle.

Attorneys with the district attorney's office, like Andrew Fields, also told commissioners they've been losing prosecutors because of lower pay.

"They go to civil firms. They go to other counties. And I've seen more leave in the last few months and years than I've ever seen in my career. In fact, it's my understanding that we've lost 27 prosecutors in the last six months to this."

District Attorney Joe Gonzales asked commissioners to consider larger pay hikes for his staff during the next budget cycle.

The pay increase will not go to elected officials or County Manager David Smith, who has a separate contract with the county.

Commissioners Tuesday also approved an immediate ban on the sale of fireworks that are missiles with fins or rockets with sticks as fire prone conditions continue due
to the drought.

County Fire Marshal Chris Lopez said he's concerned about other aerial fireworks during the Fourth of July, but the law doesn't allow further action.

"I do get asked questions about mortars and these type of things, right now, currently with our statute, we can't but at least this gives us a little bit of assistance in this area," he said.

Half-a-million residents live in the county, where many large subdivisions back up to pastures or other rustic properties where wildfires are possible.

In other actions, commissioners approved 140,000 hours of overtime pay to staff the county jail through September. While the retention rate of detention deputies has improved, other factors are aggravating staffing costs.

COVID-19 cases are growing again, which impacts staffing and Sheriff Javier Salazar said 795 inmates should be held elsewhere, such as substance abuse or mental health facilities or in state prisons, but have not been picked up by the department of criminal justice

"Unfortunately, in the State of Texas, we've done a really lousy job of building mental health beds. And we've done an outstanding job unfortunately, I say that tongue in cheek, of criminalizing homelessness and mental health. We've got an over reliance on jails in the State of Texas to fix all our problems," Salazar said.

Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores said the state should pick up the tab for the county's overtime pay since since they continue to cut money for mental health. The county spends tens-of-millions of dollars on jail overtime each year.

Commissioners also issued a proclamation to recognize the 50th anniversary of the incorporation of Somerset in southwest Bexar County. It was named for Somerset, Kentucky by its founders. It grew up as a farming and ranching community and later added oil production to its industries.

Commissioners also issued a proclamation to honor local boxer Jesse "Bam" Rodriguez, the recent WBC super-flyweight champion at the age of 22.