Hidalgo Co. cities seek ‘fair share’ of relief funds

EDINBURG — Mayors of four of the largest cities in Hidalgo County asked commissioners court Tuesday to share $151 million in coronavirus relief funds with other municipalities, and while commissioners granted their request, not all of the cities will be funded equally.

Hidalgo County commissioners agreed Tuesday to set aside $63 million in federal funding to reimburse the county’s 22 municipalities for COVID-19 related expenses — but the rate at which they will be reimbursed will differ depending on the size of their populations.

McAllen, Edinburg, Pharr, Mission, San Juan and Weslaco will be reimbursed at a rate of $110 per capita, or per person, because their populations surpass the 30,000-mark county officials used to distinguish between large and small cities in Hidalgo County.

The other 16 jurisdictions will be reimbursed at a rate of $80 per capita.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Joe Flores voted against the measure, saying he disagreed with the discrepancy in the rates.

“It’s not right what they’re doing,” Flores told The Monitor after the meeting. “All I know is that everybody deserves a fair chance and everyone deserves the same amounts no matter who it is.”

Before commissioners voted on the item, state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina, Mission Mayor Armando O’Caña and Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez took to the podium to ask commissioners to be equitable in their allotment.

“Now, $151 million is a lot of money. And it would be very unfortunate if we’re not able to spend it for the allowable uses for COVID-19,” Longoria said, noting he was speaking as a constituent and not a lawmaker. “And what we want to see is to make sure that everybody gets their fair share. Now we understand this county is big. It’s vast, and you have a lot of needs to address. But at the same time, we can’t forget those cities because those monies were based on the population of Hidalgo County and the respective cities that make up the county.”

All five elected leaders argued the $151 million the county received from the U.S. Treasury to fight the virus was allotted based on the county’s entire population — cities included — at a rate of about $175 per capita.

With the exception of Darling, all of them argued the county should reimburse every city at that rate.

“It’s no secret how the federal government funded us,” Hernandez said. “We were funded at $175, rounded up. It is what it is. All cities are important to Hidalgo County. There’s not one citizen in the east, west, north or south that is any different. Everybody is important… And everybody should get the same resources because that’s what they deserve, cause we’re here to take care of each other.”

The Pharr mayor also invoked the recent merger of the three former Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organizations.

“The reason I bring that up is because that is a unifying flag,” he said. “We demonstrated to the entire state of Texas that we could come together; that we knew what was best for our community; we knew that when it came down to it, everybody had to be treated fairly.”

Darling began his public comments by reminding Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez and Precinct 2 Commissioner Eddie Cantu they once served on city councils before being elected to their current positions. Cortez previously served as McAllen mayor, and Cantu served as a Pharr commissioner.

“I’m going to talk to you about a position that I think Judge Cortez would have taken nine years ago and Commissioner Cantu would have taken about six years ago,” Darling said as he began his pitch for a piece of the pie. “Our goal here is to really put $110 (per capita) as the base.”

Darling said his constituents carry a heavy budgetary load that benefits the county.

“We already participate in everything the county does — more than our fair share. McAllen has 18% of the population. We pay 30% of the county taxes,” the McAllen mayor said. “So what we’re asking in this case, is that we get our fair share.”

The city already has more than $25 million in COVID-19-related projects, Darling said.

“We have convention centers, libraries, community centers, senior citizen centers, municipal courts and police departments that we have to retrofit just the same as the county,” he said. “But whatever we do, we need to act now. And we hope that the county sees our position that $110 per capita has to be a starting point for us, and that we will spend the money responsibly and in conjunction with the county for the good of not only our citizens but the good of all the county.”

Commissioners ultimately agreed with Darling, setting the reimbursement rate for the six largest cities at $110 per capita.

After the decision was made, Cortez explained county officials were trying to balance reimbursement rates along with other necessities.

“We wanted to make sure that we (have) sufficient funds for a testing lab, for contact tracing, which is very important, for PPE, which is personal protection equipment that is very much needed in this period of time (and for) a forensic center,” he said, noting that staffing and clinical operations are also crucial. “So we think this is a good allocation of the funds that we have that are helping us with these difficult times.”

Precinct 4 Commissioner Ellie Torres said she wasn’t aware of any guidelines that would preclude the 22 municipalities from also seeking funds from the Texas Department of Emergency Management, which is overseeing coronavirus relief funds for the state of Texas.

“There is nothing that indicates that they wouldn’t qualify for that. So I highly encourage all our surrounding cities to apply for funding from the state,” she said.

Hidalgo County cities now have 30 days to submit budget proposals to the county.