Cities hoping for more federal relief funds

Nearly half of Hidalgo County cities that received a portion of the nearly $152 million in federal funds sent for pandemic-related expenses are requesting reimbursements exceeding their original allotments.

Cities and counties had until Dec. 30, 2020, to use the money. Otherwise, they’d need to return unused portions to the federal government. The original deadline of Dec. 30 was stretched to include another year, sparing at least 10 cities from leaving money on the table; yet, others were poised to pick up the remains.

Eleven cities submitted reimbursement requests ranging between 102% to 128% of their original allocations. Ten others have only submitted between 24% to 98% of their allotments.

At least three different city officials confirmed hearing from the county that they could request more than their original allotments.

City leaders employed different strategies when filing reimbursement requests.

“The goal was to maximize the total amount that was allotted to us. We didn’t want to leave anything on the table,” said Edcouch Mayor Viginio Gonzalez Jr.

Edcouch sent 18 requests for reimbursements totaling to 128% of the original amount allocated.

The $132 per capita disbursement agreement resulted in $437,316 set aside for Edcouch. So far, they’ve requested a total of $559,180. As of Wednesday, they’ve received only the initial 20% of their allocation.

Palmview sent in requests exceeding their original budget by 132%.

“Here at the city of Palmview if we have an advantage to receive additional funding, we are definitely going to do that,” Eric Flores, Palmview city attorney, said. “More funding for the city, it means definitely more opportunities to protect our citizens from COVID-19.”

McAllen received the greatest allocation at $18,911,376 and requested six reimbursement requests which went $715,633 over budget. By Tuesday, they’re expected to be paid the sixth reimbursement, according to the county’s budget analyst.

Most of the money went into paying first responder salaries, overtime, PPE, sanitation equipment or retrofitting buildings.

City managers and mayors described the process to apply as initially confusing and even now complicated.

“There were a lot of questions about whether different things could be reimbursed or not,” said Jose Caso, attorney for Sullivan City. The city was among the 10 whose requests were under-budget.

So far, Sullivan City requested $176,780 of their $550,440 allotment, about 32%.

Caso characterized their reimbursement strategy as more cautious.

“So, I know that some other municipalities went ahead and took the risk. Some of them are getting reimbursed and some of them aren’t.”

The city of Weslaco encountered high hurdles at the county’s auditing office.

Mike Perez, Weslaco city manager, said their EDC gave out $300,000 in small grants to businesses they were not able to successfully claim.

“What the county was requiring is that we had to have financials for every one of those businesses that we gave a grant out,” he said.

Some of the grants were as low as $1,000. Perez said they felt the time and energy required to track down financial information from each business was too great.

“We just ate it,” Perez said, speaking of the money they were not able to recover.

So far, Weslaco has requested 20 reimbursements totaling to 117% of their original allocation. Perez said he understands the limitation imposed on the reimbursements.

So far, the county has paid out 43.5% of the nearly $152 million. The rest is sitting in interest-accruing bank accounts. That’s earned the county an extra about $355,000 which they were allowed to keep and use for the same purpose.

The original deadline of Dec. 30, 2020, only applied to the spending. Budget analyst Merlen Cruz explained they had an extra 90 days to pay out the amount.

Now, the county won’t be rushed to pay out the money.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said he spoke to senators and congressmen about extending the deadline and was relieved when they were able to accomplish that by adding it in the CASH Act signed over the weekend. Though, lawmakers did not compromise on setting aside any additional federal aid for local governments.

Rep. Henry Cuellar said House Democrats wanted to include additional funding but said Senate Republicans blocked the proposal.

“We need money for staffing right now, because healthcare providers are in great demand: nurses, technicians,” Cortez said.

“We’re struggling. Hospitals have three shifts. So, if our local nurses are leaving this area and going somewhere else because they’re getting paid more money, then we need to be competitive in being able to pay for people.”