After the death of El Paso County Commissioner Dan Haggerty in June 2013, County Judge Veronica Escobar called the city’s former director of El Paso International Airport, Pat Abeln, and asked him to complete the 16 months left in Haggerty’s term.
Abeln didn’t have much time to think about it.
“I got the call from the judge on a Saturday and was appointed on that Monday in August 2013. She wanted budget hearings to start that Tuesday,” Abeln said.
He retired in 2009 as the city’s director of aviation after 10 years on the job.
He and his wife, Melissa, live on the Westside and have two sons. One is an Army helicopter pilot stationed in Germany. The other is a newly minted lawyer who passed the bar a month ago and is working for the Gordon Davis Johnson & Shane law firm in El Paso.
Abeln, 64, gave up the retirement he was very much enjoying to serve in the position Haggerty, a Republican, had held for 18 years.
The appointment came with the understanding that he would not be a candidate for the Precinct 4 commissioner, who represents the Northwest and Northeast parts of the county.
“I thought I could come here for 16 months and just be an abstract administrator and not get emotionally involved in situations and not allow the job to become all consuming. Well, I was wrong,” Abeln said.
He was surprised to find that the job of a county commissioner is far more involved than he had thought and that county government itself is just as significant as city government – and in some ways even more important.
“We provide civilization when you think about it,” he said.
He ticks off all the things county government does that are basic to the needs of an organized society – from the courts and incarceration to medical care for indigents and emergencies to maintaining the records of births, deaths and marriages.
Abeln speaks highly of his colleagues on Commissioners Court and defends the integrity of today’s El Paso County government.
“This is not the county government of 2007,” he said.
He leaves office at the end of December and will be replaced by Dan Haggerty’s nephew, Andrew Haggerty, who won the seat in the Nov. 4 election, his first political outing.
Then, Abeln will return to a peaceful but active retirement and pastimes that include woodworking, technical mountain climbing and motorcycle touring.
The fact that he had never sought political office and never will gives him a unique perspective on county affairs as an outsider who’s gotten an inside look.
He readily agreed to an interview with El Paso Inc. that touched on the state of the airline industry, his disappointment with University Medical Center’s chief executive and why elected officials should be well paid.
Q: Let’s talk about the airport for a minute. The relatively small number of direct flights to and from major cities at El Paso International Airport is seen as a significant economic development problem for the city and this region. So, Borderplex Alliance and the airport are looking to raise money from the private sector to provide airlines with guarantees on minimum seat bookings to encourage more direct routes. What are your thoughts on that strategy, and is there anything else the city can do?
I think anything you can do is worth pursuing. From a practical standpoint, it costs so much to operate an airplane today that to attempt to subsidize an airline is almost impossible. It’s easier and more practical to increase wages. What we really need in El Paso and the region are additional jobs. What makes air transportation go is people with the disposable income to buy tickets. That’s the heart of it.
Airline service is just a commodity like anything else. It’s reflective of the economy in terms of our local situation and, to a great extent, even national. The problem is there has never been a time like this in the last 40 years.
Q: What do you mean?
We’re down to four airlines in the country that count: United, American, Delta and Southwest. That’s probably 90 percent of the market share. So, there is not very much competition on either price or service compared with what we saw when there were 15 or 20 airlines. So now, it’s just pure market competition.
If you have a community that has the disposable income to pay for an airfare that will guarantee an economic return to the airline, they’ll bring the airplane. If you don’t, they’ll take the airplane someplace else.
But it’s even worse than that really. Let’s assume the airline can break even in your city. But if they can make 2-cents a mile more flying from Austin to Nashville than Austin to El Paso, where do they put the airplane? Austin to Nashville.
Q: Moving on to the county, what surprised you most about the commissioner’s job?
The diversity of what we do. We provide civilization when you think about it. The county provides the court system, the incarceration system, the medical examiner, juvenile justice, indigent and emergency medical care, record keeping when you are born, get married or pass away. We are really the repository of civilization.
It’s that way throughout Texas and around the country. It should not have surprised me, but it did.
Q: There’s been quite an uproar over the $120,000 bonus that the board of University Medical Center approved for UMC’s president and CEO, Jim Valenti. Do you think the controversy is called for? And, now we know there were other bonuses as well.
We believed that the hospital was in very dire financial straits. We approved a $20-million line of credit for tax anticipation notes that had a cost to it. We were told that there would be no merit increases. We were told it was necessary to lay off 56 people. We were told those reductions were not efficiency reductions because the jobs weren’t needed, but that those cuts were because of the burden of the Children’s Hospital debt we were bearing.
Then, to find that you’ve given your senior staff bonuses while you have laid off 56 people, frozen the salary of the working staff, I think that bothers a lot of El Pasoans. It bothers me.
In my work, I’ve valued labor. I always felt the person who patched the runway was as important as the person who sat in my office as director of aviation. Frankly, if you’re a passenger, the man or the woman patching the runway might be more important. I think when you have bonuses like this in a year when you’ve frozen salaries and laid people off, it sends a very bad message.
Q: While the laws regarding county government in Texas haven’t changed much in many years, some Texas counties – including El Paso – have attempted to modernize the structure. County Judge Veronica Escobar, with the commissioners’ approval, is going ahead with a county administrator and budget officer. Will those moves make a difference and are you on board with them?
There’s no question they will. I voted for all of them. It is going to give us more oversight on county activities than we’ve ever had before. I think you’re going to see money saved and efficiencies come into play more so than this county has ever seen.
Q: This is the big mystery: What does a county commissioner actually do?
There are four different answers here right now. What Commissioner Vince Perez does is far different from what I do. What Commissioner Carlos Leon does is probably different from what Commissioner Sergio Lewis does.
Everybody has an area of interest, focus and expertise. For example, Commissioner Leon is a retired police chief. So, we look to him for advice and guidance on public safety issues. Is he our liaison with the constables? Absolutely.
Vince is very academic and a change agent. He’s driven to make things different and better so he’s playing a far different role than someone like myself, who may be far more conservative. I think the real value of this court today is the fact that none of us does the same thing the same way.
Q: Commissioners are paid $62,681 a year but have significantly fewer responsibilities than El Paso city representatives, who get half that, $30,500. They have ordinance- making powers and lots of neighborhood issues where the city has actual powers. Is a commissioner’s salary warranted?
The city has the ability to do more things, no question about that. But don’t mistake the ability to do more things with more responsibility. For example, our having to approve a budget of $500 million for a county hospital district is a very big responsibility. Our oversight of the detention facilities is a very big responsibility. When you add the hospital district and the county’s budget together, it’s essentially equal to the city’s. So, from a budgetary standpoint, there really isn’t a big difference in terms of the monetary responsibility.
When you look at the things we do, just because they’re different doesn’t mean they’re not important. Like I said, we’re the basis of civilization, and that’s every bit as important as what City Council does.
Q: At twice the pay? Commissioners are known to work two jobs. Commissioner Haggerty did. Commissioner Lewis runs his business. At the city, we’ve had representatives who practically went broke trying to be a representative and run businesses. Is a $63,000 salary warranted, given what city representatives make?
What I would say, as someone who has never accepted my full salary here, is you have to look at the philosophy behind it. Do you want your government leaders to be limited to people of means or who are retired and have ample income? Then don’t pay them well. But, if you want to bring in people who have great ideas and a lot of energy and ambitions for change, then you probably ought to compensate them and compete a little bit with the private sector.
Q: Is a city rep’s pay too low?
Personally, I would say so. I know that’s very unpopular with the voters, but I’m not running for office, so I get to say whatever I want. I think drawing people into public service is very important.
I’ll use Commissioner Perez as an example. He could make far more money if he took a job outside government service. Not only could he make more money, but every year that he spends here is a year he’s not advancing in a corporate structure. So, he’s making less money and his career is not progressing as it would if he were a Procter & Gamble executive.
Q: You’re not taking your full salary?
I donate a big portion of my salary back. I’m on Social Security. If I accept my full salary, I end up just paying it back to Social Security. I’d rather give it back to El Paso County.
Q: What has been your biggest disappointment during your stint in public office?
What we’re going through right now with the hospital district. I had expectations that we would do a little better than we have. Without going into great detail, I think the future Commissioners Court will be far more diligent and spend far more time in dealing with hospital issues than we have.
Q: County government was looking pretty ugly a few years ago. It was a center of public corruption. Do you think things have changed?
The real story in what I found in my 16 months here is that this is not the county government of 2007.
When you look at David Stout and Andrew Haggerty, the new commissioners coming in, I have a lot of confidence that those two people are going to bring maybe different political viewpoints.
But the one thing they have in common is they’re both very decent people with a lot of integrity.
Q: The county hospital district, that is UMC and its board, approved $152 million in 2013 for six new clinics to help improve the level of medical care in El Paso, provide capacity for additional demand as a result of Obamacare and to keep non-emergency medical problems out of UMC’s emergency room. You have problems with that plan, don’t you?
I think the number’s been reduced and that it’s not going to be six. The scope has been reduced and the entire concept has changed a little since the issue was voted on by Commissioners Court in April 2013.
I’m a little disappointed that the implementation has not been quicker and that the concept itself has changed. There’s still a need there and a reason to keep people out of an emergency room. How the Affordable Care Act will impact our clinics, potential clinics and existing clinics is something we’re learning. This is a new and unexplored frontier.
Q: The county has a $311-million budget and an elected board to administer it. The county’s hospital district and UMC have a $500-million budget and an appointed board. It’s that way in most major Texas major counties. What do you think about that?
That’s kind of an interesting reversal of roles where you have the elected officials appointing an individual who ends up with greater budgetary authority than the elected official. Also interesting is that once we make that appointment, it’s irrevocable, as we have seen this week. So, the individual we appoint takes an oath and they’re no longer accountable to the commissioner who appointed them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
If you appoint a person with a strong financial background, a person who has the political independence to make decisions in the best interest of the hospital district, that’s a good thing. But your responsibility as an elected official would be to look carefully at the credentials and past performance of the person you’re appointing.
There are people on that hospital board that are tremendous managers and doing a tremendous job for this community. Even though I might personally be disappointed today, they still are serving with no compensation, and I believe doing the best they can. Is their best good enough right now? In some cases, in my opinion, no.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.