McALLEN — The nearly two-year-old intra-commission conflict over the city’s support for Comfort House, the nonprofit, short-term facility for terminally ill patients, swelled Wednesday as first-term Commissioner Omar Quintanilla challenged Commissioner John Ingram, who has been critical of Comfort House’s “bad decision.”
Comfort House hired District 6 Commissioner Veronica Whitacre to be executive director in 2015. In the eyes of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, which historically has given money to the hospice facility, Whitacre serving as commissioner and director of the facility is a conflict of interest. That conflict of interest cited by HUD caused Comfort House to lose out on $50,000 last year, as well as the city deciding to give the nonprofit zero dollars last fiscal year.
On Wednesday, the city continued reviewing its 2017-18 Fiscal Year budget, though the final budget will not be voted on by the commission until a September city commission meeting. Wednesday’s workshop focused on how much money it will dole out of the general fund to nonprofit agencies, such as Comfort House. Whitacre was absent from Wednesday’s budget workshop.
The hospice center requested a total of $101,896 from the city’s general fund, for a combination of salaries, uniforms, equipment and operations. The Community Development Block Grant Advisory Board recommended the commission give Comfort House $45,000 for the upcoming fiscal year. City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez is recommending the commission fund $35,000, specifically for equipment and operations.
Comfort House relies on support from the city, and other avenues, especially as it has tried to recover from a 2015 controversy in which a former director faces charges of capital murder. Whitacre has been active in the community trying to raise funds, including appearances at city commission meetings in Edinburg and Pharr asking for donations.
“Now that the board has made a bad decision,” Ingram said, “we need the taxpayers of McAllen to dig into their pockets to fund them?”
“It’s a worthwhile organization,” Quintanilla, who was recently elected to the commission in May, said. “It’s people on their last days.”
“You understand Comfort House lost their funding because of a bad decision they made?” Ingram said. “They were getting that funding before they lost it because of a city commissioner who has a conflict of interest. They approved that hire. I think you’re encouraging outside agencies to hire a commissioner so they can get the funding they otherwise wouldn’t get.”
“I think we know the conflict of interest but the reason why we have the ability to make the decision is because we don’t have that conflict of interest,” Quintanilla said. “The person who does is not here.”
“Look what precedent this sets for future commissions. They could coerce agencies to hire them because if they hire them, they could get their money that they wouldn’t get otherwise. So you’re setting up a situation where a commissioner gets paid.”
“Its no different than if any one of us voted on an item where McAllen construction was involved in the last four years,” Quintanilla said. “Whether it’s a business or an individual, it’s the same thing. So I don’t understand — we just have a difference of opinions.”
“Yeah, I think quite frankly, you’re naive,” Ingram said. “And I think you’re setting a bad precedent for the future.”
Mayor Jim Darling tried to defuse the back and forth, saying the city doesn’t have a policy for this conflict of interest, and that the city should potentially create one. Ingram also said that while Whitacre may recuse herself from Comfort House conversations as a commissioner, the commission doesn’t know what Whitacre is doing outside of meetings, making phone calls or trying to influence the city to give the funds to her operation, he added.
“They need to make good decisions, and if they make bad decisions, they shouldn’t come to the taxpayers to fund it,” Ingram said.
Darling reiterated that the city should look into creating a policy with these agencies regarding a conflict of interest.
“I was on the community development board and we recommended $35,000, roughly, and that was five or six years ago,” Quintanilla said.
“Was there a commissioner on that board when you recommended that,” Ingram said.
“If I was recommending when I was on that board, why wouldn’t I now?” Quintanilla.
“Because then,” Ingram said, “there wasn’t a commissioner working for them.”