Hidalgo County reduces tax rate

EDINBURG — Hidalgo County commissioners reduced the tax rate Tuesday for the first time in 18 years.

The rate has been 59 cents per $100 valuation since 2002, but that will change next year when the rate drops to 58 cents. The last time the county cut the tax rate, however, happened in 1999.

The one-cent reduction means the county will forgo about $3.4 million in taxable revenue, Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said.

“It was a combination of several factors,” he said about the reduction. “Needless to say, we’re glad that we were able to get it done and looking forward to doing it again, hopefully next year.”

The cut comes amid preparations to build a new $141 million courthouse. Critics were especially concerned the new project would lead to a higher tax rate, but commissioners, who were adamant it wouldn’t, appeared to quell those fears Tuesday.

“I’m proud of being a part of this commissioners court that could get it done,” Garcia said. “But it’s an effort on all the commissioners, the department heads and the employees.”

Employees did not receive a cost-of-living adjustment this year, which further complicated the budgeting of a hefty raise to the county’s chief employee, Valde Guerra.

Guerra, the county executive officer, was in line to receive an almost $30,000 raise, which would have brought his yearly salary to $160,000. The proposed adjustment, however, appeared to take some commissioners by surprise.

“I can’t recall one budget cycle where we talked about it,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Joseph Palacios said Tuesday.

“I’ll take the blame or credit or whatever for that,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Eddie Cantu replied.

Cantu went on to explain he had asked the budget office to research the salaries for similar positions in counties of similar sizes.

Guerra and a few other employees have — so far — not been included in the county’s implementation of the step and grade system, which will go into effect next year. Step and grade is an attempt by the commission to implement a platform on which to base employee salaries.

“We had no standards,” County Operations Administrator Raul Silguero said about compensation. “We had no minimums or maximums for any positions.”

When his office researched Guerra’s position at other similar governmental entities, staff realized most salaries ranged between $160,000 and $250,000.

“I just felt if we were going to do that for 3,000 employees, that we would do it for the executive director too,” Cantu said, and added Guerra had not requested the raise. “That’s where the thought process came (from).”

Commissioners, however, were not quick to fully endorse the idea, though several expressed that Guerra deserved the pay. Precinct 3 Commissioner Joe Flores suggested the adjustment be cut in half, leaving Guerra at $145,000 per year.

“You got to understand that we’re one of the poorest counties in the state,” he said.

And commissioners agreed. They voted to cut the proposed hike in half before approving the approximately $200 million general fund budget.

“As far as being qualified, competent and deserving of a raise, I think all of us are in agreement that he is and he does,” Garcia said about Guerra. “I just thought it was, in my opinion, too much too soon and at the wrong time … and it’s simply the wrong message.”

nlopez@themonitor.com

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect Hidalgo County last lowered it’s tax rate in 1999.