COMMENTARY: Finding responsible ways to fund county government

This is the third installment in a four-part series outlining the top priorities of Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez.


I appreciate the positive response to the previous commentaries detailing our goals for Hidalgo County in the coming years. I am especially pleased that so many people are willing to work with us to meet those goals, such as the coalition of entities who have committed to helping us address the poverty in our county, which I mentioned in my last column.

This coalition will help us identify the causes of poverty, the obstacles that make it difficult for people to move out of poverty, and the resources we have available so we can set Hidalgo County on the path to a cycle of prosperity.

Today, I focus on my third priority. As our county continues to grow, so will the need to be efficient and effective in managing the funds entrusted to us by our taxpayers.

Growth, investment and development are crucial to a prosperous future for all Hidalgo County residents. There is no doubt that the county is growing, and my concern is that county government has not kept up with the increased demand for county infrastructure and services.

The county must be a leader in planning for and directing that growth so that we invest in projects and development that will attract the type of investment and industry that enhances the beauty, natural resources and people of Hidalgo County and the Rio Grande Valley.

So, how do we begin the process? It starts with strengthening the way the county conducts its business. In order to fulfill our duty as public servants, we must ensure that we are being as efficient and effective as possible in procuring these goods and services. There are four areas that I believe are critical to that end. They are:

  1. Invest in state-of-the-art technology and systems.
  2. Eliminate unnecessary redundancies.
  3. Bolster our procurement process to ensure maximum efficiency.
  4. Maximize other sources of revenues besides property taxes.

Hidalgo County is one of the larger consumers of services and commodities in the Rio Grande Valley. That should provide us tremendous leverage in the procurement process. However, as our operating budget climbs higher, the actual impact of small inefficiencies create very serious losses for the taxpayer.

Successful private businesses eventually reach the “tipping point,” a situation where they must reinvest in new processes to reduce inefficiency. In our case, the key to this reduction will be data-driven. A county of more than 1 million residents cannot lean on outdated systems, policies and procedures and expect cutting-edge results.

The time has come for a complete reexamination of how Hidalgo County does business. Processes determined to be efficient and effective will remain while those which can be improved must be updated. We must cultivate a culture of vision; a culture of employees that feel comfortable questioning the status quo; and a culture of continuous improvement. To do that, we must invest in our employees and departments to reward innovation, efficiency and productivity. A motivated, energized work force more than earns its keep.

The “we’ve always done it this way” mentality is absolutely toxic in the 21st century. The cost of obsolete systems weighs us down because we are hindered by the lack of the most up-to-date, reliable information in our decision-making.

So many of the decisions we make at Commissioners Court are based on information we receive. We can’t make proper policy or procurement decisions if we don’t have timely, reliable information. Therefore, we must invest in leading-edge information systems. In the long-run, I believe the benefits will outweigh the cost by providing us with the information needed for better decision-making.

The next step is to eliminate redundancies. I am not talking about checks and balances, which are necessary to transparency and good governance, but of the superfluous processes currently in place. By definition, redundancy is an act or instance of needless repetition. Therefore we must identify and eliminate redundancies.

Another area where I believe we can do better is in the procurement process. The county spends millions of dollars each year on goods and services. Our procurement process must seek the best prices, leverage funds and spread the risk when possible. Researching and identifying best practices in the procurement process is essential. For example, we can reduce the cost of professional services by performing some of them in-house and establishing lower, predetermined fees for others. The standard fee will vary depending on the complexity of the service provided. Investigating the going rate for similar services in our region will go a long way to ensure we do not overpay.

Finally, I would like to reach out to the Rio Grande Valley legislative delegation to assist all four counties, Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr, and Willacy, by helping to ease the financial burden placed on us by unfunded mandates.

We need to maximize other sources of revenues besides property taxes. There are basically two sources of revenues, other than grants, to finance county government. The primary source is assessing an ad valorem tax (property tax) and the second is to charge a user fee only to those that use the service. Our state passed legislation a few years ago that allowed Hidalgo County to collect user fees for civil case filings and property records that generate roughly $1.2 million a year. I commend our state representatives and senators for supporting the legislation, and urge them to look for other ways we can implement user fees so that services to some are not placed on the backs of the majority of taxpayers.

Investing in information systems and technology, eliminating redundancies, bolstering the procurement process and working with our legislators to find other sources of revenue, such as user fees, will result in a more efficient and effective county government, and better use of your taxpayer dollars.

Richard F. Cortez is Hidalgo County judge.