|MISSION, July 8 – In a series of conversations with the Guardian over the past few months, Mission Mayor Norberto “Beto” Salinas has made clear his strong opposition to the creation of a hospital district for Hidalgo County.
Now, he is ready to go public with that opposition, in the hope that he can build momentum to block its creation. He says the taxpayers of the county cannot be expected to carry the burden of paying for the healthcare of a huge indigent population.
“There is no way in the world the taxpayers of Hidalgo County can pay for all the indigent - the indigent that lives in our county, that comes in to our county and those that will come over from Mexico. It is just impossible. I do not know how our state reps and our state Senator, Juan Hinojosa, cannot see that. You can only get so much from the taxpayers. This one is going to be a heavy burden, for the rest of the history of the county of Hidalgo. The taxes will be going up and up and up and there will be no stopping.”
Salinas said he had nothing against everyone having access to good healthcare. He said he supports this. It is just that Hidalgo County does not have the resources to meet the demand, he said.
Supporters of a hospital district, such as state Senator Hinojosa and County Judge Ramon Garcia have known about Salinas’ opposition to the creation of a hospital district for some time. They have been preparing to counter his attacks and are working on their talking points.
Salinas said the previous program to help the indigent poor worked just fine. Hidalgo County would use eight percent of its general revenue for the program, worth about $12 million a year, and when that ran out the State of Texas would kick in the rest.
Now, he said, things have changed thanks to legislation authored by Hinojosa and the supported by Rio Grande Valley lawmakers. Voters will be asked to approve the setting up of a hospital district that could, Salinas said, set a tax rate of up to 75 cents per $100 property valuation. Salinas said he will work hard to stop that happening.
“They (state lawmakers) undid something that was protecting the taxpayer. Now it is undone and they want to pass a bill whereby the county can go ahead and call for an election for the hospital district. There is no way the taxpayers can pay the cost. It is unending. If we lived in Frio County, in the middle of Texas and we were going to take care of indigent health care that would be fine. You would not get anyone from Mexico using the system. You would just be taking care of your community. That would be fine.”
Salinas said supporters of a hospital district have been have been inviting him to a meeting to help craft the new institution. “I am not going to go because I would get angry. I want them to know that there is no way in the world I am going to change my mind,” he said. Salinas said he has been sending Mission City Manager Martin Garza to the meetings to find out what is going on.
While he has not been attending meetings about a hospital district, Salinas said he has been keeping up to date on developments. He said he understands Senator Hinojosa and Hidalgo County’s House representatives want to tweak the legislation they passed last legislative session. That would happen early next year, he said, allowing supporters of the hospital district to put the plan to the voters later in 2015. “I am hoping I can organize and get people to vote against this hospital district. I think it will be next year.”
Salinas predicts that if a hospital district is set up in Hidalgo County, Mission and some other cities would lose 50 percent of their Winter Texan business. He said Winter Texans would have to pay into the hospital district and they cannot afford it. “The Winter Texans are the best economic development program we have. Better than Mexico. They leave us a lot of money. It is going to hurt us. Do the legislators care? Do the hospitals care? They do not care.”
Salinas said he has spoken about his concerns to McAllen Mayor Jim Darling. He said McAllen has about 58 percent of the property wealth in Hidalgo County. Therefore, it would chip in 58 percent of the revenues for the hospital district.
“I feel so bad because we have no one in McAllen taking care of us. There is no leadership in McAllen saying, wait a minute we are paying 58 percent of the taxes in Hidalgo County. Nobody in McAllen is waking up yet.”
Asked why he thought a hospital district would require taxpayers to pay the maximum of 75 cents per $100 valuation, Salinas said” Because there are just so many of them (indigents).” He said the district would likely start out at ten or 12 cents but pretty soon it would be at its maximum. “Within four years,” he predicted.
A source close to the negotiations on a hospital district disputes this analysis. The source, who wished to remain nameless, said the tax rate would be much, much, lower than that.
Salinas said the case for a hospital district is that it would help ensure the success of the new UTRGV medical school. “They will raise money for the medical school but the hospitals will say ‘we want our share of that money. We look after the indigent.’ They will send through all the bills that they cannot collect on. The first year, the hospitals together would be asking for about $100 million in unpaid bills. They are going to send the district the bill. The next year it will be $200 million. It will be a growing pain.”
Salinas said he asked city staff to crunch the hospital district numbers as they relate to Mission. The city has about $4 billion in property wealth. “If the bills from the hospitals come in at about $100 million then at 75 cents per $100 property valuation, that will cost us $36 million. When I was talking to Jim Darling about the medical school I said, ‘I would rather just give you a million dollars a year from the city to operate the medical school but please do not open a hospital district.’ We had a long conversation but apparently it did no good. It is going to be a big problem for taxpayers. McAllen will pay more than 50 percent of the tax because of the value of the city.”
Salinas believes a lot of people from Reynosa would come over and use Hidalgo County’s healthcare apparatus if a hospital district is formed. Asked why that is not happening now, given that a hospital cannot turn anyone away from an emergency room, Salinas said: “At the moment, the hospitals cannot turn anybody away but they take forever to take care of the Mexican visitors in the emergency room. They have to wait maybe eight hours. So they leave without being taken care of. That won’t happen with the hospital district because the hospitals know they are going to get paid. So they will treat them. It is a problem right now for the hospitals because those are the guys that are taking the hit. People need to understand the hospitals have a lot of money. They get money from the federal government to take care of some of the indigents.”
Salinas says rather than set up a hospital district, hospitals should receive more money from the federal government. “We need to talk to our congressmen and senators and say, you have got to provide more money for the indigents in this area. There is no way the taxpayers of this area can pay a big, big, chunk of taxes.”
Salinas said an example of how bad things would be with a high-charging hospital district could be played out to devastating effect in Donna. “The City of Donna sets its property tax rate at $1.25 per $100 dollars of valuation. You add 75 cents for the hospital district and that would probably shut them down. The people cannot pay $2. The reason they are at $1.25 is because of the bridge. I do not think it is going to come down.”
Salinas said he would expect to get a “slap in the face” from the taxpayers of Mission if the hospital district charged 75 cents on top of Mission’s 52 cents. “I have been trying to get our tax rate down to 48 cents. Only McAllen is cheaper.”
Salinas said the taxpayers of Hidalgo County are being hit hard with extra taxes just now, citing the $159 million bond issue by South Texas College. “And now the county wants to build a $160 million new courthouse? Who do they think we are? Millionaires? They do not understand there are so many people who cannot pay their taxes,” he said.
Asked how much the medical school will cost, Salinas said he did not know. “I said we would contribute $1 million a year if they would drop plans for a hospital district. But, they did not listen. I know that if they go to the max, 75 cents, it will cost the taxpayers of Mission $36 million. Once they form the hospital district, it is going to be a runaway train. They are going to go up to the cap right away, because there are just too many of them (indigents).”
Salinas suggested that if the hospital district is approved by voters its board of directors comprise the county commissioners. That way, voters will be able to easily identify who is to blame when the tax rate hits the roof. “How can they defend themselves? I think the hospitals can help with the indigents. They make a lot of money. Do you think they are hurting? They (South Texas Health System) are going to open another emergency room in Mission. That tells us there is a lot of money in healthcare.”
Salinas said he has a question for county commissioners. If the hospital district is created, they will not have to spend eight percent of their general revenue on the indigent. “Will the County reduce their taxes if the hospital district is formed? They are going to keep it. They are not going to return it to the taxpayers. They need the money. I think they are short by about $20 million. Are they going to reduce the tax rate from 59 to 49? Nah.”
Salinas concluded the interview with these remarks: “Seventy five cents is too much. Oh, boy. It would bring in $300 million a year from the county taxpayers to the hospital district. Think about it, $300 million from the pocket, every year. I would think 25 percent of taxpayers are not going to pay it. There will be a lot of repossessions. It is going to be devastating for this county. I do now know why Ramon Garcia would want to do this to the county.”
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of stories on the possible formation of a hospital district for Hidalgo County. In our next story we will focus on those who support the project.