A recent vote by El Paso County Commissioners to raise their own salaries and increase property taxes has led to backlash from the community at large, said County Judge Ricardo Samaniego to ABC-7 Xtra last Sunday. Samaniego told the television audience that he was there “not to justify” the pay raises and tax hike, but to “put things in the proper perspective.” Rather than acknowledge the fact that it was the county commissioners, except for the sole dissenter, Iliana Holguin that voted to increase the officials’ salaries, Samaniego, instead suggested that it was the County Human Resources Department that “brought up” the pay raises. He said that “we did not just raise our own taxes, HR did,” passing the blame on the raises to the county’s human resources department. It is important to point out that Samaniego and the other commissioners voted on the tax increase, not HR. Samaniego went on to add that “not even point seven percent of the money we will be receiving will actually go to taxes.”
“It is the lowest income” individuals that “are paying the highest burden” in taxes, said Veronica Carbajal, who stood in for Iliana Holguin. Carbajal was referring to the concept of regressive taxation, where the tax burden decreases with income. A low-income individual may pay less in property taxes because their home value is lower than that of a higher income homeowner with a higher valued home. However, in terms of proportionality, more of a lower income individual’s income goes to taxes than that of a high-income earner. Thus, a tax increase affects lower income individuals disproportionately more than that of the higher income earner.
Politicians will often push back against tax increases by suggesting that some El Paso voters do not pay property taxes. Samaniego’s comment that colonia residents do not pay property taxes ignores the fact that all properties in the county pay property taxes. Thus, any resident, whether an owner or renter, is affected by tax increases through their mortgages, rents or by having to pay the annual tax bill.
In addition to approving the highest tax rate possible without voter approval, county commissioners last week also approved a 16% pay increase for themselves last week. Samaniego’s salary jumped by $19,200 annually after he and most of the county commissioners voted themselves a pay raise.
Voting in favor of the tax increase and pay raise was Samaniego, who was joined by commissioners Carlos Leon, David Stout and Sergio Coronado. Except for Coronado, Samaniego, Leon and Stout have indicated they will not be seeking re-election. Coronado was recently elected and is not up for re-election until 2026. Iliana Holguin was the only commissioner to vote against the tax increase and pay raise.
During the ABC-7 program, Samaniego defended his vote by saying to “put aside the salaries and recall” that the county will have “$34 million for some great improvements.” Samaniego went on to acknowledge that “70% of the tax burden falls on the homeowners.”
At the show, Veronica Carbajal responded to Samaniego by stating that individuals “with such a high salary,” like Samaniego’s “become disconnected from the realities of the taxpayers.” Carbajal went on to add that the commissioners voted to increase taxes “by the highest amount possible,” adding that commissioners had three options and they voted on the highest rate possible.
She added that the county commissioners should have gone before the voters for their salary increase.
Carbajal continued with the county commissioners “could have gone with the lower tax rate,” adding that “staff told them they could,” but “chose not to.” Carbajal added that “the people that they say they are helping…are paying the highest taxes.”
Samaniego argued that as county judge he is also the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the county, adding that he “is qualified” to be the CEO. Samaniego added that he “has been in business” and suggested that he would be making more money if he was in the private sector. However, Samaniego’s own financial history includes bankruptcy.
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The Ricardo Samaniego Bankruptcy
Samaniego, who was first elected in 2019 was running for re-election in 2022 when an altercation was reported at a polling station by KVIA. According to KVIA’s report, the altercation involved Sammy Carrejo attempting to record Samaniego’s response to the question of whether he had filed bankruptcy. Samaniego did not respond, and the sheriff’s department responded to a call of an altercation involving Samaniego, one of his campaign workers and Carrejo.
El Paso News reviewed the bankruptcy court cases and found that on May 16, 2012, Ricardo Samaniego and his wife filed a voluntary petition for bankruptcy. In the filing papers, Samaniego reported $896,749 in assets and $585,509 in debt. Samaniego was making $11,569 in monthly income and was spending $8,732 each month, according to the bankruptcy filing.
Among the debts reported by Samaniego included $14,643 in unpaid property taxes on his homestead and three rental houses. In October 2016, the Samaniego’s were discharged from their bankruptcy. Among his business interests, Samaniego included an interest in Sporty Lifestyle. Sporty Lifestyle is owned by Samaniego and his wife today, according to state records.
Sport Lifestyle is among the El Paso businesses that received Paycheck Protection Program loans. The PPP loan program is a Small Business Administration (SBA) program that funded payrolls with tax monies to help businesses meet payroll during the COVID-19 crisis.
Federal prosecutors have prosecuted PPP loan recipients for the theft of hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer money in what they have labeled as the “largest fraud in U.S. history.” Among those prosecuted include the loan recipients and those who facilitated the loans. Of the 893 El Paso companies that received a PPP loan, only six received their PPP loans from Cross River Bank. One was Samaniego’s Sporty Lifestyle, which received a PPP loan of between $150,000 and $350,000.
What makes Cross River Bank interesting is that in December 2022, the SBA released a list of companies to the House Select Subcommittee it was investigating in relations to the PPP loan program. Although Cross River Bank is small, it nonetheless was number six on the list of the largest PPP loan facilitators nationwide, approving 288,932 PPP loans for over $6 billion, according to the SBA.
In March, Cross River Bank entered a consent order with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) where it agreed to correct what the FDIC called “unsafe or unsound banking practices.” The bank had until June to correct its deficiencies.
We asked Samaniego for comment about his bankruptcy and what it means for the homeowners that may be forced into bankruptcy because of the newly enacted tax rate. After Samaniego’s Executive Administrator Coordinator, Christabelle Guzman, responded to our request for comment by writing to us that she will “speak with” Samaniego to “find time” for our request, we did not hear back from either. Should Samaniego respond to our request later, we will add it to our report.
However, Samaniego was not the only official who voted themselves a tax increase that had past trouble paying their property taxes. The other one is Sergio Coronado.
The Sergio Coronado Tax Lien
Another strong advocate of the pay raise and tax increase, Sergio Coronado, also has a history of not paying his taxes on time. Coronado was delinquent on his personal income taxes from 2004 through at least 2014. In 2014, Coronado owed the IRS about $69,000 in back taxes.
Pay Raises And Tax Increase Will Stand Unless Holguin Places Agenda Item
Samaniego said on the KVIA program that the pay raise and tax increase will stand unless county commissioner Iliana Holguin, who voted against both, places an item on the county commissioners’ agenda to reconsider the vote. Samaniego was forced to disclose Holguin’s possible action after being prompted several times by the KVIA host to answer the specific question of whether “it was a done deal.”
At the ABC-7 show, Veronica Carbajal concluded her comments with it was “insulting” when county commissioners selected the highest tax rate without going to the voters. Carbajal added that commissioners “have no real empathy,” adding that “we are asking them to stand in our shoes, but obviously we can afford very different shoes.”
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