Two former Edcouch city employees are facing charges in connection with an ongoing investigation into irregularities at city’s water department.
Former interim City Manager Eduardo Gonzalez was taken into custody last Wednesday by Edcouch police on a charge of theft by a public servant valued between $750–$2,500, a state jail felony.
He was released later the same day on a $10,000 personal recognizance bond.
According to a probable cause affidavit, Gonzalez is accused of using his position as the city’s top administrator to have a new water meter and water tap installed last fall at a property he owns.
Authorities say Gonzalez never paid for the installation of the equipment, the water tap fee, or the subsequent usage fees which accrued between September 2018 and April 2019.
Last Thursday, one day after police took Gonzalez into custody, they made another arrest in the case — former Edcouch water department supervisor Erica Saenz.
Saenz was charged with abuse of official capacity, a Class A misdemeanor. She was later released on a $10,000 cash or surety bond.
Authorities allege it was Saenz who instructed city staff to install the equipment at Gonzalez’s property by delivering a work order to the public works department.
The pair of arrests comes approximately a month after current City Manager Victor Hugo de la Cruz began to uncover a series of irregularities with the billing at the city’s water department.
Soon after his hiring in January, de la Cruz began delving into the city’s financials as part of a routine annual financial audit, he said. There, he noted a $600,000 discrepancy in the city’s water billing.
“The current year there was about $170,000 in water debt,” de la Cruz said of the figures he uncovered during the most recent fiscal audit.
As he continued to investigate, he learned that that debt stretched back several years and totaled approximately $600,000.
The problem stemmed from water meters which had been incorrectly installed, and thus never accurately reported water usage. Of the city’s approximately 1,000 water accounts, half had been billed incorrectly due to the faulty meters, de la Cruz said.
In some cases, accounts had been severely underbilled. The city manager provided an example of one high-use commercial account that had only been billed the base commercial usage rate of $60 per month over a period of 3-4 years.
In other cases, water department staff had tried to mitigate the inaccurate meter readings by using what de la Cruz called the “estimation method” — billing customers based on the average historical usage rates for their accounts.
“There’s no problem with the estimation method,” de la Cruz said. “You kind of go and you get the average of the prior months, and you come up with the bill.”
“The problem here was there was too many (estimated accounts) and, well, the city was losing funds,” he said.
As the city looked into the issue of the faulty water meters and the resultant incorrect billing, staff discovered additional billing issues, this time with a number of accounts that were delinquent by staggering amounts.
“There were some accounts that were, I would say on the average … $3,000–4,000 in debt,” de la Cruz said.
As city staff continued to dig, they stumbled upon a “ghost meter” — a meter that was not registered on either the city’s meter system or its billing system, de la Cruz said.
“And it so happens that it was on property that belongs to the ex-city manager,” de la Cruz said.
City staff discovered the ghost meter in mid-April and quickly moved to shut off service pending an investigation into the unregistered account.
Police records show that on April 15, a water department employee came across handwritten paperwork which showed a water meter number that did not correspond to any active registered account.
The paper bore the handwriting of public works supervisor Raul Luna, who told police Erica Saenz had given him a work order to install the water tap and a three-quarter inch water meter at Gonzalez’s property.
Two and a half weeks later, Gonzalez attempted to have the line’s water service restored, even going as far as paying a $150 deposit fee on May 1, police records show. However, service remained suspended while police continued to investigate.
An Edcouch municipal court judge issued a warrant for Gonzalez’s arrest Wednesday. He turned himself into police at approximately 4 p.m., according to an arrest report.
“I don’t rejoice in a public servant, you know, to get in trouble like this,” City Manager Victor Hugo de la Cruz said Friday.
“What I do feel is frustration. I feel extremely frustrated for the people, for the community.”
The following day, a warrant was issued for Saenz’s arrest. She, too, turned herself into authorities.
De la Cruz said he terminated Saenz earlier this year, not long after becoming city manager and “finding that both departments that she was in charge of were in disarray,” he said.
Saenz had served as both water director and municipal court clerk, de la Cruz said.
The city manager said he expects additional arrests in the case.