Hidalgo County Judge-elect touches on challenges ahead during citizen group luncheon

McALLEN — Hidalgo County Judge-elect Richard Cortez spent Thursday afternoon speaking to roughly 50 members of the McAllen Citizens League on issues he wants to address once he takes office in January. Namely, the county’s aging infrastructure and its multi-million dollar debt are at the top of his agenda.

“We’re about borrowed up,” said Cortez, a certified public accountant, in reference to bond projects such as the county courthouse. “I don’t know where we’re going to get the money. … But I guess we’ll figure it out once we get there.”

In the 2010 census, Hidalgo County grew by over 30 percent, Cortez said. That was more than the national and Texas rate of growth. While the growth increases the amount of investment made and the number of taxpayers living in the county, it also means the county has a short amount of time to develop infrastructure to accommodate the expanding population.

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” Cortez said. “… Our future is going to depend on how we attract investment to Hidalgo County.”

But in order to do that efficiently, he said, the 22 cities in the county need to start thinking as a region.

“We are a metropolitan area that doesn’t act like a metropolitan area,” Cortez said, adding that although tax incentives are good tools to attract businesses to certain cities, they should not be used hastily. Cortez later defended a decision he made as a McAllen city commissioner for a tax break on the parking garage built at La Plaza Mall. At the time, the mall made up 25 percent of the city’s revenue, so it was worth it, he said.

Though Cortez believes the county should cut costs where it can, there are also places where investment is necessary. For example, he said the county needs to support the UTRGV School of Medicine in order to efficiently improve access to healthcare in the county.

“I believe (the school of medicine) was godsent to us and we need to do what we can to take care of it,” said Cortez, a self-described conservative Democrat, adding that that stance has earned him some criticism.

Cortez also said the county needs to invest in tourism, particularly nature tourism. However, when asked what he would do about the image of the region in the context of border issues, at a time when construction of the border wall is scheduled to cut through several Hidalgo County nature parks in February, he responded: “I wish I had an answer for you today, but I don’t.”

Cortez described the county’s behavior as being in the middle of the bell curve. In order to move it to the right, Cortez said, the county needs to educate more citizens, in turn making them more efficient citizens and taxpayers.

“There is not going to be a perfect solution to all of our problems,” he said. “But there is going to be a better way of doing it.”