EDINBURG, RGV – Edinburg city councilmembers have been fully supportive of Hidalgo County building a new courthouse and have talked about using city funds to help pay for it.

This way, Edinburg gets to remain the county seat and thus repels any advances by other cities looking to land the project, such as those in the Delta area.

J.R. Betancourt
J.R. Betancourt

Earlier this week, though, when given a chance to vote for a resolution in support of legislation that would help spread the cost of the courthouse, Edinburg city councilmembers voted “no.” The proposed resolution had been sent to the council by Hidalgo County.

The resolution, placed on the agenda by City Manager Ramiro Garza, asked the Council to consider backing a resolution “in support of legislation introduced by Senate Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa in SB 1964 and Representative Armando Martinez in HB 2868 to authorize Hidalgo County to assess a user fee to help fund a new Hidalgo County Courthouse.”

Under the Hinojosa/Martinez legislation, anyone who files a civil case or records real estate property in Hidalgo County would contribute to the cost of building a new county courthouse through a user fee. A fee of $20 per civil case and a fee of $10 per real estate property record would be levied.

The aim of the legislation is to avoid having to ask Hidalgo County taxpayers to pay for construction of a new courthouse. It is estimated that a new courthouse could cost around $200 million. Rep. Martinez told at a House committee hearing in Austin that the City of Edinburg has agreed to contribute 20 to 25 percent of the cost of a new courthouse.

Homer Jasso, Jr.
Homer Jasso, Jr.

There was only one public comment on the resolution at the Edinburg City Council meeting and it came from Objective Watchers of the Legal System and McAllen/Hidalgo County Tea Party stalwart Fern McClaugherty. She was firmly against the resolution.

McClaugherty said she had just been reading about the poorest cities in the United States on DailyFinance.com. “It says on there that Brownsville and Harlingen is the number one poorest, the second poorest is Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and third, they lumped together and put McAllen, Edinburg and Mission.”

McClaugherty said that by the time the courthouse is built it will have cost about $300 million. “I think ERO (Architects) came out and (put) their new deal at about $200 million, and this is just for the building. So, over 30 years, with financing and everything we are talking $300 million, plus the furnishing, plus the employees,” McClaugherty said.

McClaugherty said DailyFinance.com also had information on the median household income in McAllen-Edinburg-Mission. She said it is around $33,732. “It says 33.2 percent to 33.4 percent is at or on the poverty line. It talks about the 258,000 people who are under the poverty line, which means one in every three people are in poverty. Another big number is that 30 percent of the residents that live here rely on food stamps to nourish themselves,” McClaugherty said.

“We don’t want a new courthouse,” McClaugherty said, arguing that the current courthouse is perfectly adequate.

“We walk through the buildings all the time. Mondays and Tuesdays, you’re getting a jury. You’re picking a jury, so it’s packed. But when you go on Wednesday afternoons, Thursday afternoons, and the majority of all day Friday, that courthouse is not working,” McClaugherty said.

“So, if they were working 9 to 5 like bankers are or any of the businesses that are out there, you wouldn’t need a new courthouse. So, like I say, you are just putting another burden on people that already paying court fees, they are paying fines, they are paying all this, and they are going to add another fee. Try looking at your car tags. We already pay $10 for the RMA (Regional Mobility Authority) or whatever.”

McClaugherty had a question for the Edinburg city councilmembers. “Do you ever think about the poor people that were in this room tonight and they come in here and they can’t afford these little fees? It’s OK, what’s another little fee? They can’t afford. So, we are asking you all please to take consideration of the people who live here in Edinburg and in the other cities of Hidalgo County.”

Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia asked if any of the councilmembers would entertain a motion in support of the resolution. No councilmember would do that. In fact, after a brief discussion what emerged was a motion to deny.

Councilmember Richard Molina asked how much money the user fees would raise. City Manager Garza said he did not have that information but could provide it later.

Fern McClaugherty
Fern McClaugherty

“What is being proposed in the legislation is a user fee, on the resolution that was submitted to us by Hidalgo County. It would be assessed on certain court cases and recording fees. Right now, it (the resolution) does not have the actual dollar amount. It would give them the ability to have a user fee,” Garza said.

Mayor Garcia gave his interpretation of the Hinojosa/Martinez legislation. “I think what had been discussed is, for example, you get put on probation; you have to pay certain fees. This would be an additional fee. Or if you go file a lawsuit, there are fees involved, filing fees and that sort of thing, and it would be an additional fee for people transacting business of that type at the courthouse,” Garcia said. “It is not a fee for the public in general, it’s a fee for people that are having business at the courthouse, either criminal business or civil business.”

Councilmember J.R. Betancourt said: “I don’t feel comfortable doing it… unless we have a price tag. I will probably get in trouble for saying that but…”

Mayor Garcia said he would entertain a motion to table the resolution.

Councilmember Homer Jasso, Jr., responded: “Motion to deny. I have been to the courthouse and seen these fees. They are extremely high as it is, right now. I am talking about personal experience. They are really, really high. I don’t want to pass that on.”

A motion to deny the resolution was then passed unanimously.