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Hidalgo County agrees to pay portion of indigent health care debt

Hidalgo-County-SealThe Hidalgo County Commissioners Court agreed to consider paying hospitals $1 million of past due debt for indigent health care, a fraction of what is owed from 2011 and 2012, after a lengthy debate Wednesday afternoon.

Another $8 million from the county is required by the federally mandated 1115 Waiver for indigent health care.

Judge Ramon Garcia had suggested in a previous meeting that the $2.7 million owed by the county for 2012 and the $2.1 million owed from 2011 would be forgiven if the County funded the entire $8 million.

Wednesday, Carlos Zaffirini Jr., on behalf of the Hidalgo County Clinical Services, suggested the county pay the $2.7 million and the hospitals would forgive the $2.1 million.

Commissioners again balked, saying they could not afford to pay that much extra money when they already had a projected $21 million budget deficit.

Based on budget studies, Commissioner Joe Flores asked what would happen if only $4 million of the funding for the 1115 Waiver were funded so the county could use the other $4 million to cover the debt owed to the hospitals.

The court was told if the money is not provided in full, there would be fewer multipliers from the federal government and thus less health care for Hidalgo County.

Eddie Olivarez, head of the County Health and Human Resources Department, said eight percent of the taxable revenues were supposed to be dedicated to indigent care. The County was liable for up to $30,000 of the costs for each indigent.

Budget Director Sergio Cruz said the $8 million was projected to yield $19 million but a reduction to $6 million would only yield $14.5 million for indigent health care.

After discussion, the court agreed to consider $1 million for the hospitals for past due debts as well as the $8 million mandated by the 1115 Waiver. Zaffirini clearly was unhappy and the lower level of funding than requested by the HCCS.

STC bond election

In other action, supporters of the upcoming South Texas College bond election asked the county to sign a resolution in support of the election. Board President Shirley Reed told commissioners in 2001 STC had 12,000 students. Now, the student population has grown to 32,000. To keep up with growth, the school needs to issue bonds for a $159,028,940 bond issue to construct new buildings. That will require a one-half cent tax rate increase. That is Proposition No. 1 for the November election.

Proposition No. 2 is a three-cent increase in the annual tax rate to pay for the increased maintenance and operation costs associated with the operation of the new facilities, growth in student enrollment, new faculty and expanded programs.

Commissioners were told that without Proposition No. 2, STC would no longer be able to provide dual enrollment classes in high schools that allow students to earn college credits while in high school. That program alone has saved Valley families $70 million in higher education costs.

STC’s work with the economic development corporations would also have to be curtailed.

Taxpayers in Starr and Hidalgo County would pay the same tax rate to fund STC. The current rate, approved in 2001, is $0.11 per $100 valuation for maintenance and operations and $0.04 per $100 valuation for debt service.

Senior citizens over the age of 65 and disabled citizens who have filed proper exemptions will not be required to pay the increased tax rates, even if the bond election is approved by the votes.

STC is unable to get state funds for construction because Texas law specifically states community colleges are the responsibility of local voters.

Saying they could not oppose education, the commissioners approved the resolution in favor of the upcoming educational bond election.

Fern McClaugherty, of OWLS (Objective Watchers of the Legal System), spoke up in defense of taxpayers, saying McAllen, Edinburg ISD and the drainage district are all raising taxes. In addition, the museum wants tax support and the medical school would require a tax. Hidalgo County also wants a new courthouse, which she speculated would raise taxes.

The problem is the same people are paying all those tax increases. Those same people are not getting raises because of the economy and some already are having difficulty trying to hold on to their homes, McClaugherty said.

Taking the opposite view was Virginia Townsend, also of OWLS, who said she had to vote in favor of expanded educational opportunities. Many families cannot afford to send their children away to go to school, she said.

Railroad project

A discussion item on the proposed railroad project running from Hidalgo County to Brownsville flared tempers. In light of the deficit budget, commissioners seem ready to dissolve the Commuter Rails District Committee. OWLS presented the commissioners information on several occasions, showing the project would lose money.

Jim Edge, chairman of the committee, told commissioners the committee was formed at the state level under the supervision of State Rep. Armando Martinez. The county did not have the authority to dissolve the committee. Edge took exception to OWLS members’ comments questioning his integrity and said the information given to the commissioners stating rail lines were not feasible was wrong because rail lines were growing across the country. Edge said OWLS supports bus routes but they overlapped in some areas and did not serve other areas.

After several angry comments, commissioners called a halt to discussion, saying they would invite Martinez to come to a meeting to further discuss the matter.

Budget deficit

Under budget considerations, commissioners were told that a proposed three percent budget cut across all large departments could reduce the proposed budget deficit from $21 million to $18 million. Some small departments whose budgets are mostly salaries were exempted from the three percent cut because that was their operating budget.

Cruz told the commissioners going as high as four percent would mean a reduction in force. He said there are currently $2 to $3 million in savings from vacancies in positions right now.

If the deficit budget were approved, it would leave the County with only a 6.7 percent fund balance. Auditor Ray Eufracio told the commissioners if they let their budget get below an appropriate level for emergency reserves, it could affect their bond rating, making it harder to borrow money for projects.

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CoverageAreaThe Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.

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