County judge to propose compromise with cities on coronavirus relief

After weeks of clashes between city and county leaders over the disbursement of coronavirus relief funds, Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez said he will present a new proposal to county commissioners on Tuesday that reflects a compromise reached with cities on how to allocate those funds.

“Tomorrow, in our meeting, we’re going to finalize and decide what those amounts are,” Cortez said Monday of the new disbursement figures.

“We now have received information and input from cities and we’re glad that we did,” Cortez added. “That helped us understand what they wanted to do, so we are going to make some changes and modifications to our original plan of distributing the funds and tomorrow we’ll report what it is.”

The agreement was reached after Cortez met with mayors from across the county following weeks of pushback against the current plan.

The $151 million the county received in coronavirus relief aid from the U.S. Treasury was calculated on the total county population and, were it to be disbursed equally, it would have amounted to about $174.60 per person.

As part of their original plan, though, county commissioners voted last month to calculate the disbursement a little differently.

It was initially agreed that cities with more than 30,000 people would receive $110 per capita while cities with 30,000 people or less would receive $80 per capita. The rest of the funds would remain with the county.

Cortez explained that had the county paid out the full $174.60 per capita, that meant they would have paid out $88 million to the six large cities, a total of $22 million to the other cities, and about $44 million for the people in the rural areas.

“That means that we, the county, would keep no money,” Cortez said. “We would have no money to run the county services to those 250,000 people in the rural areas and almost 600,000 people in the cities.”

He pointed to the countywide services they had to maintain such as the county courthouse, the county jail, the district attorney’s office, the county clerk’s office, the district clerk’s office, their tax office, the health department, and their emergency management department.

Cortez acknowledged that the county keeps the money for the people living in rural areas but said it would be unfair if the county utilized the funds meant for the rural areas for their own purposes.

“If we use the money for the people in the rural area, then we’re penalizing the people in the rural area and taxing them for all of the services that the county provides them and the cities with their money,” Cortez said. “That cannot be fair.”

When he met with the small group of mayors, Cortez said he explained that he couldn’t give them the full $174.60 per capita, but he said they seemed to be happy with the new proposal. He cautioned, though, that it wasn’t binding as he still needed to present it to the commissioners court on Tuesday.

“And until they accept it, then it’s just an idea, it’s just a plan,” he said.

Word of those negotiations had reached U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, who said he was hopeful that the mayors, commissioners and Cortez could “figure out what’s right and equitable in the division of those funds.”

“Now’s the time for partnership and cooperation, not sniping at each other,” Gonzalez said, noting it was important to instead focus on how to best spend the money within the guidelines before the deadline by which the funds must be spent.

“We want to make sure that 100% of those resources are spent in our county,” Gonzalez added. “It would be a shame to see infighting prohibit the expenditure of those funds here in our area.”

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, ventured to say that the county’s original plan was unfair and believed the distributions should be weighted equally.

Vela, who represents the cities of Donna, Progreso, San Juan, Alamo and Weslaco, hasn’t had anyone complain to him directly about the distribution but reiterated that he thought distribution should just be based on population.

“I work with these towns all the time,” Vela said. “Obviously the smaller towns don’t have the budgets that the bigger cities do but I would have no qualms giving them the discretion to spend the money the way they wanted to.”

But his main focus, Vela said, was the distribution at the state level.

Hidalgo County was one of a handful of Texas counties to receive relief aid directly from the federal government. The other 242 counties, those with less than 500,000 people, had to go through the state for those funds.

Of the $11.24 billion that the federal government allocated to the state, a total of $3.2 billion went toward jurisdictions like Hidalgo County with more than 500,000 people. Of the remaining $8 billion the state had, $1.85 billion went toward those smaller counties.

“Counties like Webb and Nueces and Cameron, who got their money through the state, only received somewhere in the $20 million range,” Vela pointed out, arguing that the state should have paid out the same rate to those smaller counties that the federal government paid out to the larger ones.

“I think if you took $1.8 billion of that and distributed it to the counties and cities within, proportionately to the $174 per capita like the federal distribution was, all the counties and cities…that did not receive the direct distribution, they’d be getting almost three times as much.”

Gonzalez also said he felt the state government needed to do more and pointed to a letter Gov. Greg Abbott issued to counties that received funding directly from the federal government, in which he urged them to distribute funds with their cities at $175 per capita.

“I believe he needs to live by his same words and also do the same,” Gonzalez said. “Before he goes out dictating policy to county judges, I think he needs to look at himself in the mirror and do what’s fair and equitable statewide.”

Part of the problem, Vela said, is that the coronavirus relief bill did not have too many restrictions on how the states or counties could distribute the money, leaving them with plenty of discretion on how they could do it.

That issue is addressed in the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act that was passed by the House of Representatives last month. The bill still has to be negotiated with, and approved by, the Senate.

“Going forward, if we’re able to get the HEROES Act passed, the money will go directly from the federal government to cities in the states,” Vela said.

Asked his thoughts on Hidalgo County’s method of disbursements, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, on Saturday also put the onus on the state to provide relief funds to the cities.

“I think they should help the cities and the counties because, after all, the counties are political subdivisions of the state,” Cuellar said. “My thought is that they should use that $6 billion that they got, the 55% that they took from the top, and help the political subdivisions.”

Locally, Cortez said the county was under no legal obligation to share the funds with the municipalities but wanted to do so to help them recover funds that they spent on fighting COVID-19.

Regarding the smaller cities in the county, who were originally going to get $80 per capita, Cortez said the idea behind that smaller amount was to help them with the work of distributing that money.

“If you’re a city of 100,000 and you’re going through all this legal work because you’re going to give out 1,000 grants, it’s going to cost you so much money to develop that paperwork,” he said. “But if you’re a small city of 200, you’re going to spend the same amount of money to go get — what? Two grand?”

“But it was certainly no disrespect and no belief that they were any lesser than anybody else,” Cortez said. “We thought that we would be adding an additional benefit to the small cities in helping them with those issues.”

He said he wanted to help the people and the cities because the threat of COVID-19 was still here.

“We want to give it to the cities,” he said. “We want them to use it for themselves, for the people and the businesses within their communities to help them.”