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County approves $5M budget increase, hikes minimum wage to $12

Hidalgo County commissioners adopted the 2016-2017 budget and set the tax rate on Tuesday, Sept. 27 following a public hearing on both items.

Nearly $2 million of the county’s $5 million budget increase for the 2016-2017 fiscal year is due to adding 26 new positions to the payroll, an increase in the county minimum wage, and increased health insurance costs.

Hidalgo County Seal

The budget provides for an increase in the county’s minimum wage from $10.10 to $12 an hour, a 19 percent increase, at an added cost of $218,157 annually.  Due to the rising cost of health insurance, a two percent increase in the health insurance contribution rates will add $376,000 to the budget this year.  The 26 new positions being added to the county payroll will cost taxpayers approximately $1.3 million annually.

The 2017 general fund budget of $194 million grew by $5 million. Last year’s budget was $189 million.

Overall, the county’s total expenditures, budgeted at $275 million for 2017, including other revenue fund sources, have increased steadily since 2014. This year’s total budget of $275 million reflects a $12 million increase over last year.

In 2014, the county’s total budget was $250 million; in 2015 it climbed to $256 million.

Tuesday, the Commissioners’ Court unanimously approved to preserve the ad valorem tax rate of 59 cents per $100 valuation. The maintenance and operations tax rate decreased from $0.5225 to $0.5186 per $100 valuation, and the debt service tax rate increased from $0.0675 to $0.0714.

During a public hearing on the county’s proposed budget, members of the OWLS (Objective Watchers of the Legal System) questioned some of the court’s decisions, including hiring practices throughout the county and not rolling back the tax rate. Commissioner Eduardo “Eddie” Cantu of Pct. 2 acknowledged their concerns and urged his colleagues to do what they can to avoid increasing the number of employees, especially if it exceeds their budget. “If we are working within our tax rate, I think that’s a plus. We have a year till the next budget. We just need to make sure that no taxes increase. Let’s try to work conservatively and find ways to bring down our expenses.”

County Judge Ramon Garcia praised the governing body’s efforts to not raise the tax rate since 2001.

“I’m very proud to be a part of a body that has not increased the tax rate for 15 years. We have, during that period of time, been increasing our fund balance, and our goal has been to have a fund balance of between 10 to 15 percent. We’re at 14.7 percent when we adopt this budget.” Garcia said that this is going to “enable us to get an excellent bond rating and the money that we borrow will be at a lower interest rate. The lower the interest rate, the better the financial health of our county.”

New courthouse would cost $150 million
A big portion of that anticipated borrowing will be for financing the construction of a new courthouse. The project, estimated to cost $150 million, is planned to be a 311,000-square-foot facility, built on the existing courthouse square. It would house 24 courtrooms, the 13th Court of appeals, offices for the district attorney, county clerk, public defender, indigent defense, adult probation and a holding area for the Sheriff’s Department.

At the conclusion of the public hearing, budget officer Sergio Cruz reported that the county balanced the budget for the first time since 2008.

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