EDINBURG, Texas (Border Report) — The mayors of 22 border cities in South Texas on Thursday demanded that Hidalgo County commissioners distribute more federal coronavirus reimbursement funds to their communities, and keep less for the county.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez (Courtesy Photo)

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez held an emergency meeting on Thursday and invited the mayors after recent public outcry from several municipalities demanding that they get more of the $151 million in federal funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that was sent to the county in April. Cortez recently announced that cities with populations over 30,000 will receive $110 per capita; smaller communities will get $80 per head.

However, federal funding was based on a formula of $174.60 per capita and the mayors said they want every penny that they believe is owed to them.

Pharr Mayor Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez called it “smoke and mirrors,” and said they felt treated poorly by the county as if they can’t manage funds on their own.

“This is federal money from the U.S. Congress. It’s not money you earned. It’s a straight out handout,” Hernandez told commissioners, who were seated spaced apart on a stage at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance instead of their usual commission chambers.

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling is seen on Aug. 2, 2019, at McAllen City Hall. He is president of the local Council of Governments. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, president of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, which is the regional council of governments, said if they continued down this path “we’re all heading for a disaster.”

But Cortez pushed back saying that “it’s simple math” and that public health needs of the county exceed the disbursement of $174 per person. He said if he were to give away that amount “then the county would be left with zero,” he said.

Hidalgo County is the only county south of San Antonio to receive direct funding from the U.S. Department of Treasury because its population exceeds 500,000. It is among 12 counties and six cities in Texas to receive direct funding. As such, the county is tasked with distributing the funds to cities and to cover its 250,000 rural residents.

Cortez and the four commissioners said they want to use the remainder of the money for a number of initiatives that will help the entire border region, including funding local small businesses that were forced to close during the pandemic; increasing the county’s morgue capacity; equipping the jail courthouse and county offices for social distancing; reimbursing the public health department and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, which has been operating COVID-19 testing facilities; and improving the digital capacity to aid public schools and higher education institutions, as well as families working from home during this pandemic.

“We have been entrusted with $151 million that came with four pages of somewhat dos and dont’s,” Hidalgo County Commissioner Ellie Torres said. “It is truly our responsibility as leaders of this community not just to think about now, but the future.”

“At no point in time were we trying to take advantage of you or any of your communities,” Hidalgo County Commissioner David Fuentes said.

“What are you complaining about? Why are people complaining?” Cortez asked the audience, which were all required to wear masks and be seated several feet apart from one another in the huge conference hall.

What are you complaining about? Why are people complaining?”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez

Public outcry has increased after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and several state leaders, including two from the Rio Grande Valley, on May 22 sent a letter to Cortez and the other 11 county judges from the largest jurisdictions, including El Paso Conty Judge Ricardo Samaniego, urging counties to give more than they had intended. In what appears to be rounding-up of the funds, Abbott wrote: “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. It is our expectation, and we feel certain it is the expectation of county residents who live in cities within your county, that they be treated equally as citizens in the unincorporated areas of the county.”

“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.”

May 22 letter by Gov. Greg Abbott and leading lawmakers.

The letter was signed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick as well as state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and state Rep. Oscar Longoria, both Democrats from South Texas.

What wasn’t discussed much during the two-hour meeting Thursday was the $1.85 billion that the State of Texas intends to distribute to the remaining 242 counties. This is significantly less — only $55 per person — than what Hidalgo County is offering the cities. And it’s uncertain when the state will give out this money.

“We have no idea what the state will do with that money,” U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said on Wednesday during a call with media to promote passage by Congress of the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act.

Under the CARES Act, federal funds must be used for coronavirus-related costs incurred up until Dec. 31.

After Thursday’s meeting, Darling told Border Report he was “frustrated” that Hidalgo County commissioners took no action or even decided how the monies currently promised would be given out. “Applying the typical process and when we have a time limit involved and the amount of money involved is something we need to address right now and I’m a little concerned by that,” Darling said. “I’m a little frustrated that we’re still at this stage in discussion when the clock is ticking.”

Said Cortez: “There is so much need by everybody. And I can certainly empathize and sympathize with every mayor because they want to do their best for their communities. We’re always short of monies, but we’re not the culprits. The county is not the culprit.”

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com

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