County passes budget, reduces tax rate

EDINBURG — Hidalgo County commissioners passed a $308.6 million total budget earlier this week, cutting the tax rate by a half cent and bracing for a $6 million shortfall.

Of the $308.6 million total budget, about $220.3 million will go to the general fund budget, which covers maintenance and operations, and about $28.3 million will be used to pay the debt service.

Other budgeted monies include $22.7 million for the special revenue fund and $37.2 million for the enterprise fund.

And although the county’s financial outlook seems positive based on previous financial trends, there are several factors that could derail even the best laid plans.

“The only thing I’ll say is, ‘God bless us,’” County Judge Richard Cortez said Tuesday after a unanimous vote to adopt the budget. “We have a lot of uncertainties going forward with the courthouse being built; with two new courts coming up; potential aquirance of buildings.

“I hope we’ve done a good job in preparing this budget.”

UPWARD TREND

“The county’s financial position has increased over the past few years,” budget officer Sergio Cruz said in a letter to commissioners Sept 17.

Cruz noted that the county’s taxable values grew, on average, about 5.2% each year during the past five years. That’s a huge annual increase when compared to the five years before that, when the average growth was 0.8% per year.

“(It’s) an indicator that we are moving forward in a positive direction,” Cruz wrote, also noting that in 2019, the county grew by about 5.02% or the equivalent of $1.8 billion in taxable values.

Commissioners expect to levy $207.6 million in total property taxes in 2020. That’s a 3.1% increase when compared to 2019’s $201.3 million.

CRITICISM

Several residents took to the podium during the public hearing Tuesday to voice concern over a heavy investment in jails, courts and public safety, and to ask commissioners to invest instead in public infrastructure.

Most of those who spoke during the meeting were members of two nonprofit groups that routinely advocate for colonia residents: La Union del Pueblo Entero and ARISE.

“We do not agree on how our money is being distributed,” LUPE member Sareth Garcia said. “As you can see, 16% is being assigned to our administration, 19% to the judicial system, 18% to the county’s sheriff, and 22% to prisons. This is 70%, leaving only 30 percent for community services.”

Other residents called for efforts to keep people out of prison and the creation of programs to reinstate offenders into the community.

“Instead of spending so much money in services that take away or diminish our community, we should be investing in building our community,” said Martha Sanchez, a community organizing coordinator for LUPE.

Other residents asked that commissioners set aside at least half-a-million dollars each year to continue to invest in public lighting and infrastructure for colonias that lack those services. That amounts to less than 1% of the general fund budget, they noted.

“We have a colonia, right now, in Precinct 4, that has been waiting for three years to get $10,000 to put (light) posts in the front,” Sanchez said. “This is ridiculous. Everybody pays taxes and everybody deserves to have services.”

Fern McClaugherty, a member with the Objective Watchers of the Legal System, however, decried the nonprofits’ request.

“I don’t care how small the percentage is, they’re only one group,” she said. “How many others will be coming (to ask for more)?

“You can’t have a favorite of your children.”

TAX RATE REDUCTION

Despite the half-cent tax cut, Hidalgo County resident Gustavo Chapa asked commissioners to keep in mind that appraisals continue to go up. He suggested the county keep a “lean and efficient” budget in order to combat the issue.

“We have to live within our means, all of us,” he said. “We have a budget, and so do you.”

Commissioner Eddie Cantu, who led the push for the tax rate reduction, agreed with Chapa.

“We all recognize that appraisals keep going up each year. We’re taxpayers too,” he said. “This is our way of saying we’re not just going to let it be, and we’re going to reduce our rate.”

Still, that reduction might only amount to a few dollars for the average homeowner, Tax Assessor and Collector Paul Villarreal estimated Tuesday.

For a home worth about $100,000, the reduction will equal to about $5, Villarreal said.