How did the public-health district overtime situation catch everyone off-guard?

Posted at 5:56 PM, Oct 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-23 08:39:27-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Nueces County officials said they didn't know how much overtime Corpus Christi-Nueces County Public Health Director Annette Rodriguez was making.

But if she works for a county department, how could they not?

The key to even begin dissecting what's happening: understanding the intricate detail in the health district's structure.

It is funded and operated by both the city and the county. The cooperative agreement signed in 2009 states that the city manager and county judge, jointly make decisions that affect the health district.

It's a structure that was designed in 1984, and one which Corpus Christi City Manager Peter Zanoni repeatedly has called obsolete.

Judge Barbara Canales
Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales has announced she will run for a second term in 2022.

Rodriguez herself also acknowledges it doesn't work.

"I feel sometimes like I’m bounced back-and-forth like a ping-pong (ball)," she said. "They say go. It’s like being with divorced parents. 'Go ask your dad' and 'No, go ask your mom.'"

Together, they hire the public health director/local health authority. The local health authority is the highest-ranking doctor at the health department.

In San Patricio County, Dr. James Mobley, who is a medical doctor, is both the local health authority and the public health director.

At the Corpus Christi-Nueces County Public Health District, Annette Rodriguez — who is not a medical doctor — is the public health director. Dr. Srikanth Ramachandruni, who specializes in treating infectious diseases, is the local health authority.

brent chesney.png

The next piece of the puzzle: understanding that Rodriguez is technically a city employee with city benefits, despite both entities running the district. Sixty percent of Rodriguez's salary comes from the city, while the county reimburses the city its share of her salary — the other 40 percent.

"I didn’t recollect Annette’s name ever being on the overtime sheets that the commissioner’s court got, so I inquired with the county auditor, who’s in charge of all that," said Nueces County Commissioner Pct. 4 Brent Chesney. "His response was, since the health director is an employee of the city, that overtime would not have come before commissioner’s court."

However, a memo obtained by KRIS 6 News shows that Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales was the first of the two officials to agree to overtime for salaried employees such as Rodriguez.

In order to be paid overtime, the salaried employees would have to be made non-exempt, or hourly employees because of their essential status during an ongoing emergency — in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic.

In her memo requesting overtime for health department employees, Rodriguez pointed to federal Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar's declaration of a nationwide public health emergency on Feb. 3, 2020, which eventually forced the local health department to begin running 24 hours a day, seven days a week on March 7, 2020. The memo requested overtime be allowed as far back as Feb. 10, 2020.

Canales said Friday that the city pays an overtime rate of time-and-a-half, while county employees' overtime pay is equal to their base hourly pay. But under the agreement to run the health district with the city, the county also pays health department employees time-and-a-half for overtime.

"Most exempt employees never could foresee or imagine that this emergency would last this long, and that is why this has happened," she said. "It’s not because somebody wanted to unjustly enrich. It’s that the emergency lasted a long time, and those hours are verified and submitted, and we approved, and that is the essence of paying somebody for the work that they do."

Zanoni said Wednesday that an audit of the health department's records currently is underway. KRIS 6 News is working on acquiring a breakdown of the overtime hours worked.

Canales also said Friday that the city could qualify for full FEMA reimbursement of the money paid to Rodriguez and other employees, depending on its comprehensive disaster finance policy. Zanoni said he doesn't believe the city will be reimbursed. The county has requested reimbursement from the Texas Department of Emergency Management.