City of El Paso furloughed employees receive layoff notices, executives given pay increases during pandemic

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Editor’s note: To see a chart of executive salaries, scroll to bottom of story.

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – City of El Paso executives quietly received pay increases shortly after the 2021 budget was approved while hundreds of employees waited updates on their employment status.

On Wednesday, furloughed city employees received layoff notices from the city initiating the process to reintegrate them into available jobs. But in the Fall, high-ranking city employees received new pay rates and promotions while the City Council was being urged to consider budget adjustments for various capital projects.

Four deputy city managers, the police chief and chief operations and transportation officer were awarded new pay rates in October.

As some city leaders retired from their jobs during the pandemic last year, the city began consolidation on various positions. Chief Financial Officer Robert Cortinas claims the consolidations saved the city $1.1 million.

Cortinas said it wouldn’t be fair to ask department heads to take on more responsibilities without being compensated.

“Not only does it align the functions of the city because it really does put those similar type functions,” he said. “It breaks down silos, it improves our service delivery. But most important, it saves money.”

Last Spring the city furloughed 156 employees and terminated 300 contract employees due to budget shortfalls caused by the global coronavirus pandemic. City officials say furloughed employees continued to receive health insurance, life insurance and contributed to their health savings accounts.

There are 75 city employees on furlough awaiting a status change with the city.

Rick Aragon, who works in the city’s main library, said he hoped to work in public outreach when city officials first reached out to him about employment changes last Spring.

He and other furloughed employees found Tuesday’s notice upsetting due to concern that their former positions may no long exist and that they’d be moved to another role. Employees and residents have also been critical of the city’s previous decisions to keep libraries closed.

In recent weeks, the city began offering curbside services at libraries after public pressure but there seems to be heartburn leftover from earlier decisions.

“I think there’s just a very hostile attitude toward this particular department from the city manager’s office,” Aragon said. “I think it’s partially financial and I think it’s partially due to the city manager’s office being overtly hostile to this particular department.”

Aragon said he ultimately just wants to work and that many employees are eager to return.

“I love working for the city. I was proud to work for the city,” he said. “It’s sad that the city was just not proud of me.”

The city furloughed staff from the following departments

  • Library
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Zoo
  • Museums and Cultural Affairs

Vacancies are at the following departments

  • City clerk / municipal courts
  • Office of management and budget / city manager / internal auditor
  • Human resources
  • Information and Technology Services
  • Purchasing
  • Tax
  • Police
  • Fire
  • Animal Services
  • Planning and Inspections
  • Streets and Maintenance
  • Capital Improvement
  • Health
  • Sun Metro
  • Airport
  • International Bridges
  • El Paso Water

Executive level employees made “across the board” cuts and had decreases in salary to address COVID related restraints. But in August, the COVID related cuts were reversed when the City Council had discussed its budget for fiscal year 2021.

In October, deputy city managers Cary Westin, Robert Cortinas, Dionne Mack, and Tracey Jerome received new pay rates increasing their salaries by thousands of dollars. Sam Rodriguez, the city chief operations and transportation officer, and police Chief Greg Allen also received new rates granting them thousands more in pay.

The city also promoted six individuals to consolidated positions granting them new responsibilities and pay. Most notably, Angela Mora, who was named acting health director last Spring, started with a pay of $132,000. By October, her salary rose to $146,450.

Decisions to furlough city employees prompted criticism when the City Council began considering merit pay increases for city manager Tommy Gonzalez and city attorney Karla Nieman. Ultimately, both received their increases.

It is unclear whether Gonzalez or Nieman listened to former Mayor Dee Margo’s remarks about not accepting the increases during the pandemic. And, it is unclear whether Gonzalez donated his raise to local charities like Margo stated he would.

The two are the highest paid employees at the city and are given raises dependent on merit from scores on the council’s evaluations. When their evaluations were completed, the city withheld documents that are regularly released, which show how the council scored the two officials.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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