Commissioners Support More Amtrak Service, Approve Jail Overtime Pay

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Scott Ball / Rivard Report

County Commissioners are pushing for more frequent service for Amtrak trains passing through San Antonio.

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited train, which stops in San Antonio on its regular route between New Orleans and Los Angeles, is one step closer to offering daily trips.

San Antonio riders currently can hop on the Sunset Limited, which departs near the Historic Sunset Station in St. Paul Square. The train heads west on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, and goes east on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. But the Passenger Rail Association asked commissioners to back an initiative to increase the frequency of both eastbound and westbound trains.

“If we were to go to a daily Sunset Limited, we would see our ridership approximately triple,” said Jim Wyatt, a member of the Passenger Rail Association. “A triple ridership also brings about economic benefits with all places it stops.”

Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution asking Amtrak to seek funding from local, state, and federal sources to increase Sunset Limited service from three-times-a-week to daily. Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) said he wants to see more rail service from San Antonio to Austin and between New Orleans and Los Angeles.

“Amtrak is an important part of that, they have the ear of Congress. … Amtrak won’t ask Congress unless local communities ask them to ask,” he said.

Fellow association member Mike Robinson argued that increasing access to rail service also would ease the vehicle load on roadways.

“Rail service is a serious way of addressing climate issues,” Robinson said. “It’s much less polluting than airlines, much less polluting than cars, of course, and it could be part of the City of San Antonio’s grand plan to address climate issues even here within the city and within the state.”

Officials from seven other cities and counties, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg and the San Antonio City Council, have offered their support of a daily Sunset Limited line.

County commissioners also discussed the hiring process for Precinct 2 constable. Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela (Pct. 2) told reporters in September that she would be running for sheriff, which automatically triggered her resignation, according to the District Attorney’s office. Though Vela obtained a temporary restraining order keeping her in office until Oct. 11, county commissioners will continue to search for her replacement.

“That was anticipated,” Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) said of Vela seeking help from a judge to hold onto her seat. “From our perspective, nothing’s changed.”

Commissioners have narrowed the applicant field to five candidates — Donald Falcon, Javier Flores, Mary Ruiz, Leticia Vazquez, and Debra L. Zerda — and hope to interview and select a final candidate Wednesday. Nearly 30 people applied for the job, including former Bexar County Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz, who was ousted after his first term in 2012, and former Precinct 2 constable Val Flores, who Vela beat in 2016.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said he was pleased by the conditions of the temporary restraining order. Though commissioners cannot install a new constable right away, they are able to interview and appoint a replacement under the TRO. 

“I was afraid it would stop in our tracks,” he said. “If they lift it, and we have a person in place, we’d be ready to go.”

The commissioners said they would give preference to candidates who pledged not to run for the Precinct 2 constable seat in the next election.

“We don’t want to give anyone an edge up, because the election is just six months away,” Wolff explained.

Bexar County commissioners also approved $2.2 million for Bexar County Adult Detention Center employees who work mandatory overtime between Oct. 8 and Dec. 31. Commissioners also approved nearly $400,000 to cover 12,000 hours of overtime pay for employees who worked overtime from Sept. 16 and Sept. 30. The county will have paid nearly $7 million in overtime salary to sheriff employees by the end of 2019.

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said he hopes to ease detention officers’ burdens soon with new hires. There are 136 vacancies in detention, and 113 cadets in training to work at the jail, he said.

“They’re tired,” Salazar said of his current deputies working at the jail. “When you take a 40-hour workweek and add one or two extra shifts, you’re going to be more tired than usual.”

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