When El Paso Commissioners Court voted last year to go ahead with the creation of a county administrator position, the aim was to make county government more efficient.
It would probably surprise some to learn that the annual salary budget for the county administrator’s office is $1.2 million.
Commissioners Court hired Steve Norwood last December as the first county administrator at a $191,000 salary.
Norwood said the $1.2 million doesn’t reflect the impact of his department on the county because nearly all of the 14 employees were transferred from the auditor’s office and other departments and only a few had to be replaced.
And, he said, some of the changes he has made in purchasing and the committees that used to run the departments under Commissioners Court have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars already.
County Judge Veronica Escobar said the creation of the department was more of a consolidation or joining of other operations.
For instance, Norwood’s assistant county administrator, Betsy Keller, was the county’s human resources director, and she still oversees that department.
Escobar pushed for the creation of the administrator position for the same reasons former El Paso Mayor Joe Wardy expressed when he supported switching from a strong mayor government to council-manager.
Continuity, professionalism and efficiency were the chief reasons.
Before coming to El Paso, Norwood had been city manager of Roundrock, Texas; Prescott, Arizona; and the cities of North Richland Hills, Lancaster and Wylie in North Texas.
“I’d been doing this for 28 years, and I kind of wanted a different challenge – and I got one,” Norwood said.
In picking a profession, he was the apple that didn’t fall from the tree.
“I was born and raised in Lubbock,” he said. “My dad was the city manager. Lo and behold, I said I’d never do it, but here I am.”
For El Paso, the move to the council-manager government brought the city into step with the vast majority of cities in Texas and the nation.
But for El Paso County, creating an administrator position was a step some of the state’s major metropolitan counties have taken but which the vast majority of Texas’ 254 counties have not.
County government in Texas is an old machine that hasn’t changed a lot in a century, and the addition of a county administrator isn’t an easy fit.
For one thing, the large majority of the county’s 2,800 employees work for elected officials who are their own bosses and can only be fired by the voters at the polls every four years.
The English established this form of government in 1724 and abandoned it in the late 1800s. In the U.S., the southern states largely held on to it, leaving them with no zoning, ordinance-making powers or a chief executive with wide authority over county operations.
Norwood’s authority only extends to the 800 employees in departments and offices answerable to the five-member Commissioners Court.
Those departments are Budget and Fiscal Policy, Community Services, Domestic Relations, Human Resources, Medical Examiner, Mental Health Support Services, Public Defenders and Public Works.
County government wasn’t meant to run like a well-oiled machine, and the South liked it that way.
In El Paso County, the lack of zoning and building regulations led to the establishment of large colonias without services. Norwood was shocked when he saw the result.
“You’ve got areas out there without paved roads and people living in storage sheds with no running water,” he said. “You go to Dallas or Travis County and you don’t see that.”
El Paso Inc. interviewed Norwood at the courthouse last week about the county’s no-tax-increase, booming development outside the city, the challenges of being the county’s first chief administrator and what to do about Ascarate Park.
Q: What’s the biggest difference between being a city manager and the administrator of a Texas county?
Cities can do whatever they want to do as long as it’s not illegal. Counties can only do what the state says they can do. If you’re in a city and you want to add a fee, you can do it if you get the votes. Counties have to specify that it’s in state law.
Also, if you live in the city, there’s probably very few services that you won’t have. The counties in Texas are primarily involved in health care, roads, law enforcement, courts and jails. So, it’s a different animal.
Q: What do you think after eight months?
It’s been a great experience so far, a unique challenge. Especially being the first one. El Paso is a great place. Normally, if you ask someone in Texas, “Have you ever been to El Paso?” the common answer is “No, but I drove through there on I-10.”
But the people here are amazing, the weather’s great and it’s a place I’ve never spent any time in. It reminds me more of Arizona and Tucson than Texas.
Q: How does the county’s financial picture look and is a county property tax increase on the table?
No, the budget is around $250 million and we’re looking at keeping the tax rate the same. The effective tax rate went up a little, but my recommendation is to keep the tax rate the same.
Financially, the county is in strong shape. Sales taxes have increased. In property taxes, we got about $800 million in new value. Unfortunately, some of the existing values did drop.
We’re also looking at raises. My recommendation is 4 percent for the hourly employees and 3 percent for salaried.
Q: The effective rate went up? That only happens when there’s a loss of value on existing property. What happened? And, if you’re tax rate is lower than the effective rate, aren’t you actually lowering taxes.
The whole effective tax rate is confusing. But, essentially, we can say we’re lowering taxes. The value loss is costing us about $600,000. I think most of it is on the commercial side.
Something just doesn’t seem right. Most cities and counties in Texas have seen increased values. We got $800 million in new construction but property values are going down. Something is amiss, and it doesn’t make sense.
Q: County government is an old beast in Texas that hasn’t changed. But a number of urban counties have sought to modernize their operations. What are some of the constraints on your office?
There’s about 2,800 employees, and I’m responsible for 800 to 900, so there is a difference. A city manager is over all the employees. Here, there’s a lot more elected officials – the county clerk, the district clerk, sheriff, so that’s a huge difference.
Counties have very little zoning authority. By and large, you can do what you want to do. You’ve got so much unincorporated area here and development is going nonstop in the east part of the county. But people don’t know if they’re in the city or the county. Once they find out they’re in the county, they’re going to want services, things like parks, and that’s going to be our challenge.
Q: Since you opened the door on parks, I should ask what the county’s going to do with Ascarate Park and the golf course. There’s been talk of having the city take them over. Has anyone brought it up with you?
No. I think the city wanted a lot of money and improvements. But there haven’t been any more discussions about it. I do think Ascarate Park is terribly underutilized. It’s several hundred acres. You’ve got a golf course, you’ve got the lake, you’ve got a lot of open space and it’s our park. We can’t sell it to a developer. It was a gifting from the feds, and they said it shall remain a public park purpose in perpetuity.
So, if it’s going to be our park, then we need to maintain it better. We need to go after more events, and that’s what we’re looking at doing. It’s a great venue in a great location, but it’s almost been forgotten about. We’re going to put more maintenance money into it and look at making improvements. I also want special events out there that generate revenue.
Q: The county Parks Department used to be a political morass that didn’t get watched. Commissioners could place their political friends, pay them well and not require much work. People got indicted for stealing, and it was always a scandal waiting to happen.
I think that’s one of the differences you’re seeing now with us having a professional administrative team to watch those things. It’s not about getting three votes anymore, it’s looking at policies, procedures, abilities and we’re doing it. There have been a lot of changes, and there’s a lot more accountability and oversight. But, yes, I have heard the horror stories.
Q: What changes has Commissioners Court made to enable the effective operation of a county administrator’s office?
The consolidated budget and fiscal policy are in my office. It was in the county auditor’s office. Now that budget and fiscal policy is in my area, Commissioners Court has a little bit more control. We’ve eliminated three meetings a month.
Before, the county was managed pretty much by committee. You had a staff review committee and a capital improvements committee where people from different departments could decide what one particular department would get.
I don’t manage by committee. If there’s an Information Technology request, I’m going to my IT director. I don’t need somebody from the Sheriff’s Department telling somebody else what they need from an IT perspective. We’ve eliminated a lot of committees. There’s far more accountability, and it’s not “go get three votes and I don’t care about the other two.” The commissioners are getting information equally and uniformly.
Q: Which departments are you overseeing?
It’s Road and Bridge, Public Works, Parks, Medical Examiner, Public Defender, Community Services, Human Resources, Mental Health, Information Technology. In some ways, it’s the internal core functions that are absolutely essential for the user departments.
We’re also looking the fact that we do a lot of things that aren’t mandated by the state that some local non-profits could do instead of the county.
Q: You probably hear from the new commissioner, Andrew Haggerty, on that. But the previous Haggerty, Dan, who died in office last year used to talk about sticking to the mandated services and dumping the rest. But he wound up taking up the cause of the Border Children’s Mental Health Collaborative. Are you looking at it?
There are a lot of mental health organizations here in El Paso. Are there things they would be doing that the county’s doing now? It’s like parks. It’s not state mandated, but who else is going to do it? If there’s somebody else who could do it and do it cheaper and more effectively, I’m all for it. There just needs to be a critical view of some of the functions and operations of the county.
The collaborative is still a county operation, and we’re reviewing that to see if there are things we can do differently and maybe collaborate on with local non-profits. I mean, is it really part of our mission and our focus?
Q: Elected officials are their own bosses, fully in charge of their own offices. What does your office have to do with these elective offices?
We do supply direction on human resources. We are responsible for their budgets. I’ve told the elected officials that I’m not here to say yes or no, I’m here to help you. If there’s something you need, let me know. I think they’re seeing a new era of county government and a new way of governing.
Q: I suspect most people would be surprised to know that the budget for your office and the budget office you also oversee is $1.2 million. It was created with the idea of making county government more efficient and, presumably, to save money here and there. Where will you be able to save taxpayers money?
The bulk of those positions were moved. The only one that’s really new one is my position and Wallace Hargrove’s position as budget director and one other.
Right off the bat, eliminating the committees that we had will save a lot. They were time consuming, and it was probably $500,000 in staff time to attend all these meetings and doing their research prior to the meetings. We’ve changed some of our financial policies to make them quicker and more efficient. We have changed some of our purchasing procedures.
Job order contracts is one area. We would wait on every single thing that was bid out and handled by requests for proposals. Now we’re saying if I need a dry wall or an electrician, I’ve got two or three contractors to pick from. That’s knocked about eight weeks from every project we do because we’re not waiting on everything to be bid. We’ve already done that. I can just pick up the phone can call somebody, and there’s a not-to-exceed $100,000 rule.
If it’s already in the budget, the court has already said go do it. So now, I just go do it, and the only thing they see is when we’re ready to approve the contracts.
Q: Other than the new Fabens port of entry, are there other major projects the county has going or will have this coming year?
No, it’s been just taking care of what we’ve got. The jail will probably be opening the extra pod that will house a little over 400 inmates sometime in the summer of ‘16. Then we’ll see if there are things we can do to maybe shut floors down in the Downtown jail. It’s an old facility that’s not as efficient or cost effective as the annex.
Q: Don’t you need a Downtown detention facility, simply because you’re constantly moving prisoners to and from the county courthouse and the federal courthouse?
Right, we need some kind of presence, whether it’s booking or holding cells for prisoners going to court. We need something; it may not be housing 1,000 prisoners.
Q: Commissioner Vince Perez raised questions about the cost of keeping federal prisoners and whether it’s a loss or a benefit to the county. He said the county was losing money at $70 a night. Is that going up?
We are in the process of negotiating that with the federal prison system. You’re probably looking at anywhere from $85 to $90 a day, so that will go up. When you start talking about 500 prisoners a day on average, times a $15 a day difference, times 365 days a year, that’s a big number. We are in that process of negotiation.
Q: What’s the status and opening date for the county’s Fabens-Tornillo port entry?
They’ve said the Mexican side will be ready in September, but there’s no way. It’s looking more like December or January. It’s a moving target and we’re getting closer, but that date for completion is fuzzy. I think the bridge is complete. It’s just the access roads on the Mexican side that aren’t.
Everything on our side is completed, I think. We’re ready. We’ve contracted with the Regional Mobility Authority to manage it for us. Again, that’s what they do. We’re not in business to run toll bridges.
Q: With new subdivisions popping up in the eastern part of the county, what sort of development issues is the county facing.
You’ve got those municipal utility districts out there. El Paso is not annexing in that area. A huge driver is going to be getting infrastructure out there and, again, there’s something like 40,000 platted home sites out there and we just have very little control. You’ve got areas our there without paved roads and people living in storage sheds with no running water. You go to Dallas or Travis County and you don’t see that. But we’ve got some areas out there that are just terrible.