McAllen pledges $1 million to UTRGV medical school

McALLEN — A check presentation had been set for Wednesday, but for a few minutes on Monday, that ceremony was in doubt — McAllen city commissioners have never made their annual $1 million pledge to the only medical school in South Texas without at least a tinge of tension, and Monday was no different.

Just before commissioners voted at Monday night’s commission meeting to honor its annual commitment to the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine, Commissioner Joaquin “J.J.” Zamora asked Sofia Hernandez, chief of staff of the School of Medicine, various questions. Hernandez then proposed the possibility of returning to the next commission workshop so she could explain in depth the details Zamora was asking about.

The city’s chief executive, City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez, quickly turned to Mayor Jim Darling, who wore a nervous smile.

“Could you tell?” Darling asked after the meeting.

Rodriguez had recommended that commissioners vote in favor of sending the already-budgeted $1 million to the university, and Darling noted Wednesday’s looming check presentation. After all, at a workshop held before the commission meeting, Hernandez and a high-ranking colleague made a presentation to commissioners, who asked questions but did not show signs they disagreed with writing a $1 million check to the university, as they have done the previous two years.

After Zamora’s questioning just before the vote, Commissioner Omar Quintanilla raised a couple of concerns as well, and said he mostly wanted to offer his thoughts for public consumption. Commissioners then voted unanimously approving the $1 million, but the result did not come without possible political implications.

The vote came two months before an election where three city commissioners are up for re-election. Two of those commissioners did not participate in the vote. District 4 Commissioner Aida Ramirez, who is not seeking re-election after 18 years on the commission, was absent from Monday’s meeting. District 6 Commissioner Veronica Whitacre, who did not receive an opponent in the upcoming May election, recused herself from the vote, as she has done in previous years. (Whitacre has cited her husband’s employment at the university for her recusal.)

District 5 Commissioner John Ingram, who’s facing a challenge from two candidates, voted in favor of sending $1 million to the university on Monday and in 2018. In 2017, Ingram voted against giving the university any money, citing at the time an uncertain sales tax revenue future and other possible budget hurdles.

Zamora, however, is not up for re-election, and for the first time he voted in favor of sending money to the university. Monday’s $1 million will piggyback off of last year’s identical pledge, which was specifically to help establish a cancer immunology research program. The UTRGV officials on Monday outlined how the new money would be used — standout researchers in the cancer research field are about to move to South Texas for this program and they’ll be working in various labs at the facility. The university is also seeking to increase the number of cancer screenings and more jobs will be created.

After some admitted nerves, Wednesday’s check presentation will go on as planned, Darling said later, as he sought to clear up any confusion about his feelings.

“I’m happy as hell about the vote,” Darling said.