County's road warriors seek car allowance
Last updated 7/6/2021 at 10:18pm
As Orange County begins the road to its 2022 budget, a few of their road warriors would like to weigh in.
County precinct commissioners and constables are letting it be known they’d like some help with mounting automobile expenses.
“I’m trying to build this office up,” said Precinct 2 Constable Jeremiah Gunter. “It could be a moneymaker for the county.
“But to make a lot of money, I have to have money to travel and go to schools.”
In a salary scale finalized in September 2017 that created the first raise for Orange County’s elected officials since 2009, those in the county who are elected by one of the four precincts – commissioners, constables and justices of the peace – were not given car allowances nor county vehicles to drive.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Johnny Trahan, who joined current County Judge John Gothia in voting for the 2017 pay raise, guessed he puts about 20,000 miles a year on his personal truck while on county business. Gunter said he spends between $150 to $160 per week on gas while doing his job, which figures out to at least twice what Trahan spends.
“We get no gas allowance and we can’t take any of the expense off our income tax,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Theresa Beauchamp said.
“I had to replace two tires last month because of all the nails on the roadway, and I couldn’t deduct it.”
Commissioners, JPs and constables all make the same base salary, now $74,256 per year.
All county employees may receive slight increases based on the length of their service.
Prior to the 2017 raise to $72,800 per year, constables made a base salary of $65,818, and for first-term commissioners, it was $63,118.
But in the final 2017 raise, which ranged from 10.6% to 15.3% for precinct officials, gas and phone allowances were eliminated for all elected officials except the Sheriff.
The Sheriff and his deputies, law enforcers whose vehicles see as much travel, or more, than constables, get the use of a county vehicle with maintenance and insurance paid by the county.
A plan that offered less pay plus a $300 per month car allowance for commissioners and JPs was voted down by the five-member Commissioners Court that has to vote on all EO pay raises.
The constables' vehicle situation in 2017 was changed on several occasions.
That fiscal year began, as had been the case for the previous decade, with constables providing their own vehicles and paying for maintenance and insurance from their own funds. After an on-the-job wreck, it was discovered that the county was not covering their vehicles with insurance, so the constables quit performing many of their normal functions, like prisoner escorts, traffic stops, assisting sheriff’s deputies.
Two weeks later, the county decided to provide constables with their own cars, which could be fueled and serviced by the county. But those cars and trucks were high-mileage castaways from the Sheriff’s Office or other departments.
There wasn’t a lot of protest when the county took those vehicles back in September 2017.
A survey of elected precinct officials found unanimous belief that those who drove the most miles doing their jobs in Orange County were constables, then commissioners, then Justices of the Peace.
“When Judge [Chad] Jenkins is on call-out, he hits seven or eight [death] inquests all over the county,” Gunter said.
To which Jenkins deflected.
“It [the lack of car allowances] affects them [constables] a lot more than it affects us [JPs],” Jenkins said. “When we were fortunate enough to be elected to these jobs, we knew the deal.”
Increasing prices of gas and maintenance may have caught some people by surprise, but what constables in Orange County find out is how long and wide are their jurisdictions, with a lot of backroads.
“You drive around and look at the crappiest places in the county. That’s where we have to drive,” Gunter, a former Orange County Sheriff’s deputy, said.
“When I worked for the county [OCSO], it was nothing to get a nail in your tire. You brought it to the county garage and they fixed it. Since I’ve been in this job [beginning July 2020], I’ve had nine nails and new tires I had to pay for on my own.
“And I have to have my own insurance coverage. The county only pays liability. Our constables are going above and beyond to serve Orange County.”
The position of constable has been deemed redundant and non-essential by some in recent years.
Chief duties include serving as bailiff for JP courts, serving warrants and other court papers and assisting the Sheriff’s Office when needed. All of which lead to fees paid to the Precinct.
“I know there have been bills to abolish the constable office,” Gunter said. “But we deposit money into the budget, and I’m not talking about speed traps.
“Even though courts were closed and warrants were shut off last year for COVID, we’ve done a lot of evictions. If you don’t stay on top of the job, you miss a lot of time deadlines.”
Trahan said he expected that car allowances probably would be discussed in this summer’s budget planning.
“I know others put more miles on their car than me. I know the constables do,” Trahan said.
“What we don’t need is another cumbersome process of keeping up with mileage. At one point, we were angling on coming up with some kind of county vehicle, because if you’re in a chase, you don’t want them to have to use their own car.
“We haven’t had any kind of budget discussions yet, but I think that would come up in the budget.”
All four currently serving constables, Lannie Claybar in Precinct 1, Gunter, Brad Frye in Precinct 3 and Matt Ortego in Precinct 4, took office early because of the early retirements of their predecessors, then won election.
Several of those who left cited vehicle wear and tear and expenses among their reasons for stepping down.
“The salary used to be $64,000 and they’d give you $10,000 per year for a vehicle allowance,” Gunter said, “but the county put everything into salary to help with the constables’ retirement.
“It’s funny. Every one of us knew this coming in. All four constables are pretty much brand new. We’re going to schools, finding out stuff we need to do.”
Gothia, now the County Judge, agreed with Trahan that it might be time to consider some vehicle allowances.
“We thought we’d solved that, but we never guessed we’d all be so busy,” the judge said, referring to the back-to-back disaster declarations of the past few years.