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City says pay raises to top executives are part of money-saving effort

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Five city leadership executives received higher pay rates in October, triggering concerns among some city representatives who said they were not advised ahead of the changes.

City executive pay raise data from March through January provided to El Paso Matters shows the majority of City Manager Tommy Gonzalez’s leadership team received higher pay rates in October, in addition to pay raises that had been given earlier last year.

When the City Council adopted the budget for the new fiscal year that began Sept. 1, city officials said there was not going to be funding for pay raises.

Gonzalez and other staff did not respond to El Paso Matters’ interview requests. But in statements to City Council, Gonzalez has said the pay raises to some executives were a result of them taking on additional work as the city reduced the number of top leaders.

Alexsandra Annello

“My first concern was just, the council was not made aware of this. You know, we’ve heard about savings, we have not heard about these new pay rates. (I’m) not sure where the money is coming from, and what the policy is that allows this,” said City Rep. Alexsandra Annello.

Annello said she acknowledges that people have been working extremely hard and that if staff are receiving extra duties they should be compensated, but the decision and change was not explained.

“If this information had been given to me by our executive team, I’m sure it wouldn’t seem as worrisome as it does at this moment. So (I’m) not wanting to jump to any conclusions, it’s just, it’s hard when we’re not being given all the information and that it’s not a completely transparent process,” Annello said.

City Rep. Joe Molinar also said he hadn’t heard of the pay raises for senior city staff.

“I really don’t want to state an opinion, because I want to run some numbers or do some calculations or figure something out, but it’s not good. It’s really not good. I mean, it’s good for them. It’s good for their folks, their families. It’s a winning thing for them. But I mean, when did this salary take effect?,” Molinar said.

Consolidating executive positions

Gonzalez, during a Feb. 15 City Council work session, said the city “reduced its executive ranks by six positions,” resulting in a $1.1 million savings and adjusted salaries for executives that were given additional departments to oversee.

The move came following an exodus of long-time city leadership, most of which occurred during the pandemic.

Those who left include Robert Resendes, former public health director; Monica Lombrana, director of aviation; Paula Powell who had recently been appointed director of animal services; Jay Banasiak, the director of Sun Metro; Ted Marquez, the deputy city manager of public works, Tracy Novak, the director of parks and recreation and Linda Ball Thomas, the human resources director.

“When we did that we adjusted salaries for those doing more and bumping against the deputy city manager pay, so we kept the 5% policy separation from deputy city managers to others intact and we made all of those pay adjustments,” Gonzalez said during the meeting.

Information obtained by El Paso Matters through the Texas Public Information Act shows that executive pay increased during the pandemic. In fiscal year 2019, which is from September through August, executives were paid about $14.6 million. In fiscal year 2020, executive pay increased to $15.2 million  — an increase of about $600,000.

Gonzalez did not mention during the meeting who received the new pay rates or which policy allowed for the increase in pay.

Chief Financial Officer Robert Cortinas, who received a new pay rate, said during a press conference Wednesday that the consolidation of positions and pay raises was about savings.

“It’s not about giving raises, it was about saving money and identifying efficiencies,” Cortinas said.

New pay rates for executives

Cary Westin, senior deputy city manager of economic development and tourism, received a new pay rate that boosted his salary to about $206,000 — an increase of 2%. 

Robert Cortinas, deputy city manager of support services and chief financial officer, received a new pay rate that boosted his salary to about $196,000 — an increase of 2%.

Dionne Mack, deputy city manager of public safety, received a new pay rate that boosted her salary to just about $200,000 — an increase of approximately 3%.

Tracey Jerome, deputy city manager of quality of life, received a new pay rate that boosted her salary to about $196,000 — an increase of approximately 3%.

Samuel Rodriguez, chief operations and transportation officer, received a new pay rate that boosted his salary to $196,000 — an increase of approximately 13%.

Police Chief Greg Allen received a new pay rate that boosted his salary to about $187,000, an increase of approximately 8%.

Robert Cortinas

Cortinas said Allen received a new pay rate because the city’s code compliance is now reporting to the Police Department. 

“So what we’re doing is aligning the functions of our city operations, and on top of that generating savings to the tune of about $1 million, over $1 million a year,” Cortinas said.

One-time payments

City Rep. Cassandra Hernandez said she thought the new pay rates were reflective of the one-time payments that City Council authorized as part of the adoption of the budget. However, the payments to the top executives changed their ongoing salary rate and were not one-time payments.

City documents show general service and professional/managerial employees were scheduled to receive payments ranging from $200 to $600 for full-time employees and $100 to $300 for part-time employees Sept. 25.

There was also a one-time percentage adjustment lump-sum payment that would be reflected on Oct. 23 for all employees that had pay decreases from May through August. The one-time percentage adjustments were to range from 0.25% to 1.25%.

Hernandez said those allocations were funded from additional sales tax revenue not included in the initial budget proposal.

“I don’t think that these were pay raises in the middle of a pandemic; these were to reconcile the salaries for reducing the salaries,” Hernandez said.

The documents obtained by El Paso Matters indicate that the senior executives received ongoing pay raises just as the pandemic began devastating El Paso in the fall. The changes were not classified as one-time percentage adjustments.

Hit to morale

David Guzman, the field representative for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 59, said the executive pay raises will be a blow to the morale of city employees represented by the union.

“The employees are always loyal to their job, you know, whatever happens, they come back to work. Now, with that said, furloughed employees are just left out in the dark without knowing what their future is going to be,” Guzman said.

On Wednesday, 75 furloughed employees received layoff letters that sparked panic and frustration.

City officials said it’s part of a process to bring them back to work in other positions at or below their existing pay grade, but does not guarantee they will be placed.

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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