BY NAXIELY LOPEZ-PUENTE AND BERENICE GARCIA

EDINBURG — Tension between Hidalgo County and its municipalities reached a boiling point after elected officials in several cities expressed disappointment at how the county distributed a portion of the $151 million it received in coronavirus relief funds.

Last week, Hidalgo County commissioners voted to share $63 million — or nearly 42% of the money it received directly from the federal government in April — with cities on a reimbursement basis for their COVID-19 related expenses. After that allocation, Hidalgo County was left with $88 million to spend on rural residents and other public health purposes.

The issue is, municipal officials don’t think county commissioners were fair in their funding formula, which capped the reimbursement rates for large cities at $110 per capita and small cities at $80 per head — all based on a population mark above or below 30,000.

Because Hidalgo County received the money based on a $175-per-person formula, which included those living inside city limits, municipal officials believe the money should have been distributed the same way.

“What’s fair is $174.49 per capita,” Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina said Wednesday, a day after county commissioners made their decision. “The city of Edinburg is disappointed, the city of McAllen is disappointed, the city of Mission is disappointed, the city of Pharr (is disappointed). And I feel like I can speak on their behalf simply because the four of us met with the county judge. We told him in private about our concerns. We wanted to know how he had come up with that formula and we couldn’t really get an explanation except that they had projects that they felt took precedent over the citizens that live inside the cities.”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, however, said those projects, which include creating a lab, a morgue and a warehouse to properly store equipment, are needed and will not only benefit rural residents, but the entire county.

“These are necessary things directly attributable to the virus,” he said. “So we think it’s very appropriate to invest in those things because that’s what the monies are for.”

Aside from creating relief programs for businesses and rural residents hit hard by the pandemic, another portion of the funds could possibly be directed at forging stronger partnerships with local school districts to bring internet services to county residents and with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine, which has been instrumental in the county’s testing abilities, Cortez said.

“We were short on testing. We didn’t have labs … (and) they came up and very quickly opened up testing facilities. That was a great benefit to us,” he said. “Well, if a partner for the county that helped us at a great time of need doesn’t get any benefits from being a partner, then why would we ever expect them to continue to be our partner?”

Cortez took offense at the notion that commissioners — with the exception of Precinct 3 Commissioner Joe Flores, who voted against the measure — were unfair in their funding formula, noting that 242 other Texas counties and their respective cities only received $55 per person from the state.

“Well, first of all, I’m going to start by telling you that I’m very disappointed that mayors are unhappy when the county has given them millions of dollars. You would think that they would be happy,” Cortez said Wednesday. “I’m real confused (about) why we’re being considered the bad guys when we gave everybody more money than what the state of Texas would have given them. And we’re still leaving money to protect them from future danger… and they’re complaining?”

Municipal leaders, especially those in smaller cities, however, say they feel like they were short-handed because of the disparity in funding between the cities.

Traffic is seen over the overpass on 281 South near Edinburg on Friday, May 22. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

“How did they come up with that number? Was it just from the hip or did they do any kinds of studies,” Palmview City Councilman Joel Garcia asked Thursday in reference to the $80 per capita rate his city was given. “It’s a pretty tough pill to swallow. I don’t want to use the word ‘discriminating’ but what else can we use?”

Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez also disagreed with the $110 per capita funding his city received.

“To tell me that my population is worth $110 a head, per capita, and my neighbor is only worth $80 and you’re (worth) $175 — with all due respect, we should be offended,” Hernandez said about municipalities. “And we are, because that makes no logical sense except it’s a power play on your behalf.”

Cortez, however, said commissioners made the “tough” decision based on the disparity of resources available to smaller cities.

“Large cities have the infrastructure, the people, the accountant, the lawyers, the people that can administer these grants and programs, but some of the (smaller) cities don’t,” he said about relief efforts for residents and businesses. “But what we wanted to do was have programs in the county and say, “You small cities that don’t have the resources to do these things, kick it back on us we will get it done.’ … That was the reason that the small cities got less money than the large cities because we knew that the large cities could implement their own programs, but we knew that the small cities would probably have a bigger problem in administering those programs.”

Edcouch City Manager Victor Hungo de la Cruz sees it differently.

“Honestly, send the (money), let us budget it and let us do what we’re going to do. I don’t think our hands have to be held throughout this,” he said. “We know where the money should be spent. I know it’s a long shot, but somebody has to say it.”

Cortez, however, said he can’t just write a check.

“ I’m going to tell you it’s not that easy,” he said. “This is a federal grant that’s got restrictions; it’s got conditions to it.”

And after all, Hidalgo County will be responsible for making sure those monies are spent according to the federal guidelines because the government could ask for the money back if it’s spent outside the guidelines, Cortez noted.

“We’re the ones that are entrusted to make those decisions,” he said. “The county judge and the county has the responsibility to govern during a health emergency. That is by state law. I have a higher authority, a higher responsibility, than any mayor in the county. The mayors have to follow my orders by law.”

That leaves cities at the mercy of the county, and officials are concerned there are no other funding sources available to them, at least for now. Cities are being told by the Texas Department of Emergency Management and Gov. Greg Abbott that they have to turn to the county for help.

“We were thinking of applying directly to the state, but since they already gave to the county that money, I don’t think we have a chance,” Alton Mayor Salvador Vela said Wednesday.

Vela said his city was expecting to receive $2 million from Hidalgo County at a rate of $175 per person. Instead, he said, the city of about 18,000 will be capped at $1.4 million.

“We had to lay off some employees; we had to cut the summer program — summer camp with the Boys (& Girls) Club, and we had to close the academy down. So we have a lot of expenses,” Vela said.

De la Cruz said he laid off eight employees, or nearly 22% of Edcouch’s workforce, in anticipation of a budgetary windfall.

“I had to stop the overtime and I had to start doing a hazard pay because the city wasn’t going to be able to survive,” de la Cruz said. “We’re not able at this point to have a rainy day fund in Edcouch, and as far as dipping, I dipped into the budget into other areas that weren’t as important, like for instance, marketing.”

Like Alton, Edcouch will be reimbursed at $80 per capita, which means the city can apply for up to $268,000 from the county.

“It took us two months to get to $110,000 (in expenses),” the Edcouch city manager said. “So I don’t think the math is there.”

Though he also disagreed with the funding formula, he was grateful for the aid the county will offer.

“At the end of the day, I think it’s better than nothing,” he said. “In past disasters that we’ve had … we didn’t get anything.”

And as far as getting more relief funds from the state, Gov. Greg Abbott indicated Friday that’s not currently an option, telling counties to distribute funds equally among their municipalities.”

“It is unreasonable to demand additional dollars be allocated locally at this time,” Abbott wrote in a letter addressed to Cortez and 10 other county judges whose jurisdictions received money directly from the federal government.

He directed county judges to distribute the funds in a “fair and equitable manner,” but stopped short of telling them to distribute the money at a rate of $175 per person for each municipality. Instead, he said, it was the “clear intent” of Congress that “counties were given $175 per capita for all of their citizens and not just those in unincorporated areas.”

But Cortez appeared incensed that Abbott would weigh in on what he thought was clearly a federal issue.

“How can a governor that has nothing to do with the federal government tell us that the intent of what the federal government wanted to do was that? I’m sorry, but somebody’s going to have to answer that question for me,” Cortez said Saturday. “Now, he can tell me what the intent of the state government is, because that’s his jurisdiction, that’s his duty, that’s what he has to do, but how did he know what 100 senators and 450 congressmen were thinking about when they decided to give those counties and cities a direct grant.”

Cortez once again noted the state is only distributing relief funds at $55 per capita to other counties and cities that did not receive direct funding from the federal government.

“He received $8 billion directly and he only distributed $1.85 (billion) to the other counties and cities,” Cortez said about the governor. “He kept 75% of it. So now he’s criticizing the county judges?”

It’s unclear if Abbott’s letter will result in any policy changes for Hidalgo County.

“I am only one of five. I would have to discuss it with the rest of the people but I’m a little tired of people misrepresenting what the county has done. It’s very simple,” he said. “And here we are, getting criticized. They think that we’re going to put these things in our pocket?

“All of this money, every penny that we’re going to spend is going to go benefit somebody in Hidalgo County.”

And even though mayors are frustrated, some believe all will work itself out.

“I know they mean well. I think everybody’s heart is in the right place. Everybody’s trying to do what’s right,” Hernandez, the Pharr mayor said. “And if we’re not getting it right, there’s still time for us to regroup and do what’s best for all of our county constituents.”

Cortez expressed the same sentiment.

“Now in the event that we don’t use the monies as we think that we’re going to use them, and should use them, we still felt that we had time to go back and …have sufficient money to go back to the cities and say, ‘Hey, do you have additional needs?’” Cortez said.

Hidalgo County has until Dec. 30 to spend the money. Any unspent funds will be returned to the federal government.

nlopez@themonitor.com | bereniceg@themonitor.com