Pay changes

Rockwall County Commissioner Cliff Sevier (left) and County Judge David Sweet are both lowering their salaries, returning much of the controversial raises that were approved in the county budget in September.

A Rockwall County commissioner and the County Judge have returned most of the massive pay raises approved in the most recent budget

Commissioner Cliff Sevier stated that he believed it would be “hypocritical” to accept the money following his vote against the current county budget.

In an interview with the Herald-Banner on Wednesday, Rockwall County Judge David Sweet said he would also file an affidavit to lower his salary following weeks of deliberation.

Commissioner Cliff Sevier, representing Precinct 1 and having served for the previous seven years, notified the Herald-Banner that he has officially returned $16,000 of his fiscal year 2020 salary back to the county, invoking a little-known facet of the Texas Local Government Code.

This specific item, Chapter 152, Subchapter D, Section 52, states: “An elected county or precinct officer may, at any time, reduce the amount of compensation set for that office by filing with the county payroll officer an affidavit stating that the officer elects to reduce the amount of compensation paid for the officer’s service to a specified amount. The reduction is effective on the date the affidavit is filed, and the county payroll officer shall issue any subsequent paychecks for the officer accordingly.”

Sevier provided the Herald-Banner with a copy of a notarized affidavit that was filed on Oct. 15 to reduce his yearly salary from $96,000 to $80,000. This will still constitute a nearly-3 percent raise from his 2018-19 salary.

In a prepared statement given to the Herald-Banner, the commissioner said that he would not vote against the raise and then pocket the money.

“I felt it would be hypocritical to vote against both the pay raise and budget then turn around and pocket the money,” Sevier said. “As a fiscal conservative, my No. 1 priority is representing hardworking families who operate within their budgets, and the best way to do that is to operate our county more efficiently at reduced costs to taxpayers.”

He said that he also contacted the other commissioners and County Judge David Sweet to inform them of his decision.

“I wasn’t trying to demand they do the same, I simply wanted to tell them what I had decided to do,” Sevier said. “I haven’t heard any response from them on if they plan to do the same.”

On Wednesday Sweet told the Herald-Banner that he would be filing an affidavit later in the day to lower his pay down from $121,000 to $102,069.45, which still marks a 5 percent increase over his 2018-19 earnings. He said that this was a personal decision.

“I am 100 percent behind the decisions we made in the budget for the law enforcement performance pay scale and what we did for county employee salaries,” Sweet said. “But this is was a personal choice that is being made after weeks of thought, reflection and discussion.”

Sweet added that this decision was not being made in reaction to Commissioner Sevier.

“I am not critical of others and what they choose to do, and I am not doing this in a reactionary fashion,” Sweet said. “I am aware of the impact this can have on the pay scale, but I felt like this was the best decision for me, personally.”

A copy of the official affidavit from Sweet was forwarded to the Herald-Banner Wednesday afternoon.

Emails were sent to commissioners Dennis Bailey, Lee Gilbert and David Magness for comment. All three would not comment on Sevier’s decision to lower his salary, and stated they supported the court’s decision to approve the budget.

Commissioner Gilbert noted that at the Aug. 13 meeting of the court where the employee salaries were first presented, he was the only commissioner to vote against the salary increases at the time.

However, he also noted that he voted for the final draft of the budget in September and he “continue[s] to support the actions of the commissioner’s court."

In September, the commissioner’s court approved the budget for the fiscal year 2019-20 after much significant public outcry. At multiple court meetings, residents came forward during the public comment period to voice their opposition to the pay raises built into the budget for elected officials. Positions such as commissioner, sheriff, county clerk and more saw salary increases anywhere between 15 and 25 percent.

“No place do I know where they would give someone a 10 to 25 percent raise in a year,” one county resident said at a Sept. 17 budget hearing. “…You should be ashamed of yourselves. We are going to be the laughing stock of Texas.”

Several area pundits also weighed in, with Dallas Morning News columnist Dave Lieber calling the move “a grand heist.”

At a Sept. 10 budget hearing, Sevier then voted to lower the raises for elected officials down to 8 percent each of the next three years. A vote was called but the measure failed, with Sevier and Judge Sweet voting for and commissioners Lee Gilbert, Dennis Bailey and David Magness voting against.

Sevier stated at a later meeting that this motion was made after receiving “lots of mail and calls from residents saying that something should be done. I said I would try, and that’s what I did.”

The Precinct 1 commissioner continued to oppose the raises when the final budget vote came, as Sevier was the only one to vote against the passage of the budget. He told the Herald-Banner this week that his opposition vote was based specifically on the raises.

“I’m not going to be a hypocrite,” Sevier said.

Sevier was on the initial budget committee with commissioner Magness that first proposed the large raises. When asked what went in to the decision to propose the amounts in the first place, Sevier said that it was based off of research on counties with similar demographics and what was paid there.

“We were just going to find out what was fair,” Sevier said. “We are part of 14 counties with similar demographics, so we wanted to match up with them.”

But according to data from a 2018 survey by the Texas Association of Counties, Rockwall County stacked up favorably against other counties. The survey is completed every two years and compares salaries of different counties in the state and divides it up into population to see which counties are competitive.

According to the publicly available data, out of 26 counties in the population range of 50,000 to 99,999, Rockwall County ranked third in county judge salary, second in county treasurer salary, first in county clerk salary, second in sheriff salary and third in county commissioner salary. The data is available online at https://bit.ly/2mgaxMd.

The approved budget for fiscal year 2019-20 can be found online at https://bit.ly/36CrB1J.

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