HIDALGO — The City Council adopted a lean, $8 million operating budget Friday afternoon that keeps Hidalgo’s rock-bottom property tax rate unchanged.
Making the math work wasn’t easy.
Traditionally, tolls collected at the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge, traffic fines and taxes have fueled city spending. Between the down economy and drug-related violence across the Rio Grande, all have taken hits during the past decade.
“We just do more with less,” City Manager Joe Vera said. “We wear more hats.”
The no-frills budget includes $475,000 for one-time expenses, including three new police cars purchased with asset-forfeiture funds and a $150,000 street sweeping machine. Hidalgo’s operating budget, which includes employee salaries and other recurring expenses, remains virtually unchanged from last year at $8 million.
“Not knowing what bridge revenue will be, the unpredictability of the situation in Mexico and so forth, I think staying conservative, staying on task is the right way to go,” said Councilman Guillermo Ramirez, who spoke at Friday’s meeting.
If all goes according to plan, Hidalgo will end the budget year, which started Monday and ends Sept. 30, 2013, with a razor-thin $36,000 cushion. That assumption, though, depends largely on Hidalgo’s increasingly unpredictable revenue from sales tax and traffic fines.
For most Rio Grande Valley cities, 2012 brought higher sales tax receipts and larger payments from the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, which collects and distributes the local sales tax. Hidalgo wasn’t among them.
In the first nine months of 2012, Hidalgo’s sales tax receipts fell about 13 percent year-over-year, according to the Comptroller’s office. Neither Vera nor Councilman Rudy Franz, who owns several transportation businesses, could explain the sharp decline.
A drop-off in traffic tickets also rocked Hidalgo’s budget last fiscal year, contributing to a nearly $1.3 million budget deficit. Hidalgo corrected the problem with an amended budget, which shows a $42,000 surplus after numerous tweaks.
After traffic tickets became a hot issue in the run-up to Hidalgo’s contentious City Council election, former police Chief Vernon Rosser said he told officers to avoid writing tickets when possible. That blew a giant hole in Hidalgo’s budget, which traditionally funded public safety with court revenue.
Hidalgo had expected to collect $925,000 from fines and forfeits last fiscal year, but collected only $516,000, according to budget records. This fiscal year, Hidalgo reduced the estimate to $725,000, which may prove optimistic.
“We’re doing the best we can out there, with what we got,” said Julian Guzman, interim chief of Hidalgo police.
Police have shifted focus from traffic enforcement to other tasks, Guzman said, though traffic enforcement policies haven’t changed. Hidalgo also has fewer officers, making traffic a lower priority.
“It’s really the responsibility of both the past administration and the present administration,” Mayor Martin Cepeda said. “We’re working on it.”
The City Council isn’t telling officers to write more tickets or avoid writing tickets, Cepeda said, adding that law enforcement officers write tickets at their discretion.
While sales tax and court revenue remains uncertain, bridge revenue and property tax revenue have been bright spots.
Hidalgo’s property tax rate remains unchanged at 35.14 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, which remains among the Rio Grande Valley’s lowest. Neighboring Pharr collects 68 cents per $100 of assessed valuation and McAllen collects 43.13 cents, according to the Hidalgo County Appraisal District’s website.
“It’s very important because you see that we’re providing the services with what we’ve got,” Cepeda said, adding that Hidalgo manages to provide police protection and well-kept parks with the same tax rate, despite rising costs.
Higher property valuations and new construction have helped, too. Hidalgo expects to collect 5.75 percent more from property tax this fiscal year.
Likewise, Hidalgo and McAllen expect toll revenue to remain steady. McAllen’s budget projections show Hidalgo’s slice of toll revenue growing slightly next year from nearly $2.8 million last fiscal year to nearly $3 million this year.
Dave Hendricks covers McAllen and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at email@example.com and (956) 683-4452.
Follow Dave Hendricks on Twitter: @dmhj