EDINBURG — Hidalgo County is not ready to fund two new county courts at law, at least that’s the consensus elected officials have reached as they move forward with the 2020 fiscal year budget.
Earlier this year, the 86th Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 891, which created County Court at Law No. 9 and County Court at Law No. 10 in Hidalgo County.
The new law, which state Rep. Terry Canales helped pass, took effect Sept. 1, leaving county officials two choices: appoint two new judges and establish the courts immediately or wait for the public to elect the judges in 2020 and open the courts Jan. 1, 2021.
It’s a decision that comes with a hefty price tag.
According to budget office estimates, it would cost Hidalgo County taxpayers approximately $2.7 million per year to run both courts — an expense seemingly too high for the commissioner’s court as it grapples with the construction of a new county courthouse.
Budget officer Sergio Cruz recommended commissioners not appoint anyone to the posts and instead wait for the election. However, he cautioned during a workshop last month that a lawsuit could complicate things.
“It’s my understanding that at any point somebody could file a lawsuit against the county after Sept. 1, once those two positions become vacant … to sort of force the hand of the court to appoint somebody,” Cruz said.
But the lawsuit would only be a problem if the court sided with the petitioner, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez noted.
“Where do you put these guys?” Commissioner Eddie Cantu said of the new judges. “Do you know where to put them?”
“No,” Cortez replied.
“We don’t have room at the courthouse,” Cantu said, adding he was against appointing anyone to the position.
“We’re just not ready,” Cortez added. “It would put too much burden, too much pressure to do something that we’re not ready to do.”
In February, commissioners’ court unanimously approved a resolution that supported the creation of the courts, but even then, officials were looking at a distant future, Cruz said.
“I think that was the intent of the court when they supported the resolution for those two new courts … (that it) would be pushed off into the future,” he said. “That’s just not the way it worked out.”
Commissioners ultimately agreed with Cruz and directed him to scratch the $2.7 million from the proposed budget, which continues to be refined.
Commissioners are expected to file the proposed budget Sept. 18, and it will likely be considered for adoption Sept. 24.