COMMENTARY: Turbulence in Hidalgo County

For the better part of three months, Hidalgo County has faced historic challenges in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our community’s response has been overwhelming. From the sacrifices made by our schools and their students to the sacrifices made by healthcare providers, first responders, grocery stores, local businesses, delivery people and every single resident who has had to endure countless hours at home while this deadly virus passes, I have been inspired by Hidalgo County.

I don’t think it was a coincidence that Hidalgo County has had the lowest rate of infection and — thankfully— lowest incidents of death among the state’s most populous counties.

One aspect in which I have the greatest pride is the response of the 22 municipalities in Hidalgo County. For weeks, representatives from these jurisdictions have been part of daily briefings with the county about the status of the disease. For weeks, the mayors and city representatives have been supportive of tough decisions that had to be made in the name of public safety.

Unfortunately, now that we have begun easing public safety restrictions under the direction of Gov. Greg Abbott, there is turbulence in the air involving many of these jurisdictions. More unfortunate, that turbulence involves money that the federal government has given us to help ease the impact of COVID-19.

It got downright choppy after Tuesday when the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court voted to make available $63 million to local municipalities to help with eligible expenditures on a reimbursable basis for COVID19-related costs. This money comes from a pot of $151 million that the federal government sent to Hidalgo County based on its population at a rate of $175 per capita. Other counties and cities with a population of more than 500,000 also received money totaling more than $3 billion. The state of Texas received an additional $8 billion.

The county was not mandated to disburse these funds among the municipalities. Instead, the Commissioners Court made a choice to do so. We avoided the proposal to divide the money by population because a little more than a quarter of the county’s overall population is in unincorporated areas. Hidalgo County would have been left with 28 percent of the money allotted to us with 100 percent of the obligation for a slew of county services that we provide to all 22 municipalities and rural areas such as health care and emergency management — particularly in a crisis such as this. Where are we supposed to get this funding from?

The majority of the court, including myself, voted to set money aside for local jurisdictions at a rate of $110 per capita for cities with populations of 30,000 people or more — where most of the infections occurred — and a rate of $80 for communities with a population of less than 30,000. I recognize there is a disparity, but the criticism that rural residents are less valued than urban residents are simply untrue.

Our intent is to help these smaller communities by relieving them of bureaucratic burdens and get more direct aid to their residents through grants and other programs administered and paid for by the county.

Many of those in the larger cities wanted money based on the $175 per capita rate that the federal government sent to Hidalgo County. Smaller cities said it was unfair that they get $80 per capita compared with the $110 per capita made available to the larger cities. Ironically, both sized jurisdictions received much more than the state intends to provide communities in the rest of Texas: a meager $55 per capita when the state received $388 per capita.

Because of all this, weeks of unity among the jurisdictions suddenly seem threatened.

I stand by my vote, which was cast following a deliberative process with the Commissioners Court.

As an elected official, I’m prepared for the criticism that my vote provoked. As a public servant, I intend to fight to maintain the unity that has been forged with local jurisdictions because all evidence and all medical advisers tell me this crisis is not over.

Beyond protecting public safety, my main objective is to protect taxpayers’ money by frugally using it for the collective services provided to all of Hidalgo County — including large cities, small cities and unincorporated areas. My vote was predicated on those two obligations.

Federal relief funds come with stringent measures, the greatest being the ability to “claw back” or ask local governments to refund money that the feds feel was used improperly or without sufficient documentation relating to coronavirus. In the case of this money, the federal government has made it clear the money is to provide relief for costs associated with the pandemic. If spent improperly or without sufficient documentation, it would be Hidalgo County taxpayers — not the local jurisdiction — that would have to make good on any funds clawed back. I cannot allow that to happen.

The $88 million being held in reserve by Hidalgo County is being targeted for all residents living in large cities or small and those in rural areas. Hidalgo County is the largest in Texas, for example, that has no county-run laboratory, which would have been invaluable early on for the testing process. We also need to expand our forensic center, which serves the function of a morgue. Currently, because of capacity issues, we essentially have two refrigerated vehicles on standby in case this disease has more fatalities.

We are working to rectify that with some of these funds. This crisis also demonstrated to us how essential our distance learning capacity is in our schools. I want part of that money to help bridge the digital divide that exists in our county and allows a more seamless transition to distance learning if needed in the future.

Finally, the small businesses in Hidalgo County, particularly in the smaller communities and rural areas have been hit particularly hard and I want as much of the $88 million toward grants to directly help these businesses and spur economic activity to robust levels. We must also be prepared to help people who were unable to pay mortgages or rents or utilities.

I have declared many times that I am extremely proud of how Hidalgo County has responded to the current pandemic and particularly proud of the unity of purpose demonstrated by each of the jurisdictions in this county. To allow ill will among the jurisdictions to develop at this point over money would not only be destructive to a weakened economy, but potentially dangerous to its residents as COVID-19 continues to lurk among us.

Richard F. Cortez is Hidalgo County judge.