EDITORIAL: RGV review Hidalgo Co’s FY 2018 proposed budget and proposed pay raises

Hidalgo County officials are poised to vote Tuesday to approve the biggest budget in the county’s history for fiscal 2018, as well as a 1-cent decrease in the county’s tax rate per $100 property tax valuation — which would be most welcome by residents.

The increased budget includes funds to begin construction of a controversial new Hidalgo County courthouse in Edinburg, and more money for jail costs and juvenile defendant care, indigent health care, leasing of county vehicles and to cover rising healthcare premiums for the 3,000 county workers.

The county’s general fund budget for fiscal 2018 is $200.7 million and would cover county maintenance and operation costs, which is where most spending occurs. This is a 3.2 percent increase from the 2017 general fund budget of $194.2 million. It also represents the first time the county’s general fund would top $200 million. And is an 11.3 percent increase from just four years ago, when in 2014 the budget was $177.9 million.

The total proposed budget in fiscal 2018 is $282.1 million, which in addition to the general fund budget sets aside $24.9 million for special revenue funded departments; $23.7 million for debt service; and $32.8 million for enterprise funds, which include health benefits and workers’ compensation for county employees as well as jail commissary costs.

And although this is the biggest budget ever, county officials say they can successfully balance the budget plus give taxpayers a one-cent property tax rate decrease — to 58 cents per $100 property valuation — in part because of rising property tax revenues that reflect our region’s growth and expansion in all industries and areas.

“The continuous growth of the estimated revenues has alleviating [SIC] the county’s financial burden from previous years,” Hidalgo County Budget Officer Sergio Cruz wrote in an introductory letter accompanying the budget, which was posted to the county’s website Wednesday morning. “This is the third year in a row that revenues experience an increase, an indicator that we are moving forward in a positive direction.”

The tax rate drop will cut $3 million in revenue, but property taxes are still expected to bring in $170.3 million, with $30.4 million expected to be generated by other sources.

Cruz calls the budget “conservative” and touts that it would still put aside $28 million — or 14 percent — for the “unreserved fund balance,” (the rainy day fund.) This is well above the 10 percent that Hidalgo County Commissioners a few years ago pledged to always stay above.

We congratulate Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia and the court for being able to grow this fund to this amount, which Cruz writes “will position the county at the historical maximum cash requirement to provide the county sufficient cash flow for a stable financial operations.”

We encourage them to maintain a conservative fiscal course, especially as the planning and hiring for a $141 million new county courthouse facility has begun. Many do not believe this facility is needed but The Monitor editorial board has stated a new facility is necessary to accommodate growing security concerns and to meet our growing population’s needs.

Knowing the unpopularity of such a building, however, commissioners would be wise to keep other costs as low as possible, including salary raises.

Therefore we find it disconcerting that there are plans to raise some salaries significantly, such as a $28,943 pay hike for the county’s chief officer, County Executive Officer Valde Guerra, making his total salary $160,000. Precinct 2 Commissioner Eduardo “Eddie” Cantu told us, after the last budget workshop was held Tuesday, that this would be on par with pay for other administrators of counties of similar size and still is below what some local city managers earn. But we believe it would send a wrong message to taxpayers at this critical time.

Other raises that created concern include $13,824 for Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramón, bringing her salary to $91,800; and $13,214 for an assistant director for Urban County, making that salary $78,704.

As always, it’s up to taxpayers to keep abreast and monitor county spending throughout the year, not just during the budgeting season. Most importantly: Hold county officials accountable by being knowledgeable and active and vocal.

An earlier version of this editorial contained an error based on a report from Hidalgo County that said taxes were cut in 2012. They were not.