Compromise struck on virus relief money for cities, county

By Naxiely Lopez-Puente and Berenice Garcia

EDINBURG — Hidalgo County Commissioners went back to the drawing board Tuesday and split more coronavirus relief money with municipalities after weeks of criticism from more than a dozen mayors from across the county.

On Tuesday, commissioners voted to reimburse all cities — regardless of their populations — at a rate of $132 per capita, which eliminated the funding disparity that had drawn the ire of smaller cities and increased the overall funding for all municipalities.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez said commissioners came up with the $132 rate after calculating some of the countywide expenses that are necessary to fight the disease and keep countywide facilities, like the county courthouse, up and running.

“So that totaled 37 million,” Cortez said about the countywide expenditures.

After subtracting the $37 million from the $151 million Hidalgo County received in relief funding, commissioners were left with about $114 million to distribute. When they divided that equally based on the county’s entire population, that amounted to about $132 per capita, Cortez.

The new funding formula received mixed reactions Wednesday.

“Smaller cities are the “big winners,” Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina said about communities with populations of less than 30,000, which commissioners originally gave a rate of $80 per capita. “They came from $80 to $132. That’s big for them.”

Alton Mayor Salvador Vela could not agree more.

“This is one of the (most) joyous days of my life,” he said, letting out a laugh. “Man, I’m so happy.”

Vela was one of many mayors that spoke out about the disparity in funding amid a tense few weeks between county commissioners and municipal mayors.

“Everybody forgot about COVID-19,” he said about the disagreement between officials. “Nobody’s talking about the COVID anymore.”

Vela said his city of nearly 18,000 now has an additional $600,000 to share with struggling businesses.

“Since we know the area really good, we can even visit them first and ask them what they need — so it’s going to be really helpful,” he said. “(Commissioners) wanted to give us $80, can you imagine that? We couldn’t have done anything for economic development to give to the businesses.”

Mayors in bigger cities were less thrilled.

“The city of Mission’s position is $174.60 (per capita),” Mayor Armando O’Caña said Wednesday. “That’s where we stand; I have not changed, I have not budged.”

O’Caña said he still believes the county is keeping a bulk of the money based on the $37 million it allocated for countywide projects and their share of $132 per person living in rural Hidalgo County.

“Mission stands at $175 and we’re going to submit $14 million (in reimbursements),” he said. “We’re going to submit those kind of projects because I already have enough projects to go over $15 million.”

Molina, like O’Caña, initially lobbied commissioners for the same amount, but he appeared satisfied with the compromise Tuesday.

“At the end of the day, I think it’s a start,” Molina said. “It’s a good compromise.”

Cortez noted that cities will receive an immediate allotment of $114 per capita because $18 of the $132 will be placed in a reserve fund for unforeseen future needs related to the pandemic. Those $18 every jurisdiction is contributing to the pot of money, amounts to approximately $15 million.

“I am sure that something — an unknown expense, an unknown occurrence — may happen between now and then. So it’s always safe, you know, to save money and put a reserve in case of a contingency,” he said. “If it doesn’t come —and I hope it doesn’t come — then each city, each municipality will have its pro rata share of that 15 million.”

And in order to do all of this — share more money with the cities and create a contingency fund — commissioners had to cut back on their initial allotment of $40 to $50 million intended to expand internet services across the county.

“We felt that it could be a little too ambitious to do it in a short amount of time. So what we decided is, to abandon that idea and reallocate (those funds) to everyone,” the county judge said. “But, there seems to be sufficient interest by some cities that we said that we would have a working group of all the cities in the county that we would sit down and maybe pool our resources.

“I think we need to do it because I think that is so, so, so important, but this way it gives them, the (cities), the privilege of saying yes or saying no.”

And while the funding formula is set, there are still some remaining concerns about which data set the county will rely on to determine population sizes.

Palmview City Councilman Joel Garcia said the county pegged his city’s population at about 5,800, which he estimates undercuts the city by nearly 10,000.

“That’s what concerns me. I mean, who’s getting that money,” Garcia asked.

The Palmview mayor also noted there are 7,500 registered voters in Palmview, well above the county’s estimate.

“So the numbers are way off…” he said.

Cortez said he’s well aware of those concerns.

“Obviously we want to be fair, and we’re gonna look into those matters and do the right thing — whatever the right thing is,” he said. “Right now we have been using the US census estimate for cities as the best estimate, but we understand that there was some annexations in those cities that weren’t taken into consideration. So I think in fairness to everybody concerned, we will be looking into that.”

But despite the work that remains to be done and the questions that remain to be answered, Cortez is pleased with the progress and the county’s compromise.

“I hope everybody’s happy cause I think everybody has sufficient funds to recover their out-of-pocket expenses and hopefully share some of those funds with businesses and individuals who lost money because of this,” he said. “I think everybody understood that there was no malice, that there was no wrong intentions.”

And even though there were tense deliberations, Cortez remains positive about the

partnership’s future.

“(Like) some famous writer says, ‘all is well, that ends well,’” Cortez said.