EDINBURG, RGV – As Hidalgo County grows and becomes more sophisticated, its local governments need to adapt and take on bigger picture items.
This is the view of Hidalgo County Commissioner Joseph Palacios. He said in the case of Hidalgo County Commissioners that means looking beyond basic functions like infrastructure, roads, bridges and drainage.
“We have to start looking at quality of life issues, such as developing our community resource centers, working with the local university and medical school on the bigger issues, the macro issues, such as breaking the cycle of poverty,” Palacios said, in a wide-ranging interview with the Rio Grande Guardian. “It is all about connection. If we can figure out how we connect things, such as infrastructure with quality of life services, this can be catalyst to coping with the monumental change we are seeing.”
Palacios was quick to point out that basic infrastructure issues, at least in his part of the county – Precinct 4 – have not been neglected. Far from it.
“Our fiduciary responsibility is infrastructure, roads and drainage. We have got a great stronghold on infrastructure, having built out many roads. We had a record breaking 30 miles of road built, whereas it used to be 15 to 16 miles. We have doubled the amount of work, and our productivity is high.”
Another example of investment in infrastructure taking place is the $140 million he helped secure for Edinburg as vice chairman of the Hidalgo County Metropolitan Planning Organization.
“As vice chair, I advocated for about $140 million of needed infrastructure, using state and federal monies, to improve mobility and opportunity. We also worked with the City of McAllen to improve infrastructure so A&M can build its campus at Tres Lagos, on Ware and Mont Cristo.”
Asked about his efforts to break the cycle of poverty, Palacios referenced work in San Carlos, an unincorporated area east of Edinburg that is home to more than 6,000 colonia residents. He also referenced the Hoehn Subdivision on Monte Cristo Road.
“The objective is to connect these colonias to bigger and better things such as higher education and access to healthcare, as well as improving the values of the land and homes of colonial residents. If we can look beyond just infrastructure, that is when the real change happens, when we start looking at things like NAFTA, more regional issues, looking at ways to play better with our partners, whether it is a city or a county. We have to look beyond the lines of what is our normal fiduciary.”
Area Health Education Centers
Asked for an example of a quality of life issue he has taken on, Palacios referenced working with UT-Rio Grande Valley’s School of Medicine to create three Area Health Education Centers, one in Hidalgo County, one in Cameron County and one in Starr County.
“We were able to get a federal grant, worth $3.8 million, which will provide free healthcare in the three counties. In Hidalgo County, the Area Health Education Center will be based in San Carlos. It is the first of its kind in the county and will allow us to work with the medical school to provide primary healthcare for 6,000 residents, for people who are so disengaged from urbanized areas where there are clinics, hospitals and all of that,” Palacios said.
“With this program, we can start changing the trend and the people that live in these unincorporated areas, they can go get a checkup, whether female or male, they can take more preventative care. The reason why we have a challenge in the uncompensated, indigent healthcare program is because they are not doing preventative care, they are going straight to a hospital. With the AHEC grant, they will not be going so much to the hospitals.”
While discussing the Area Health Education Center, Palacios brought up Hidalgo County’s indigent healthcare program. A local hospital consortium picked up the slack when Hidalgo County Commissioner’s Court reduced its funding for indigent healthcare from $12 million to $5.5 million.
“We talk about the county looking at infrastructure, drainage, the courthouse, what if we start with human life? Our indigent healthcare program is set to address issues like this. It is not in its perfect form at this time, the federal government obviously sees a problem because it created the 1115 Waiver to help address uncompensated care. There has to be a balance and I can’t say it is at 50-50 at this time. The way the system works with the hospital consortium is they will grab the value, the county will put $5.5 million, statutorily we are supposed to be putting anywhere from $11 million to $12 million based on our adopted budget, which is eight percent of the budget. It then gets used for indigent healthcare. Now, because of the 1115 Waiver program we are able to multiply that value,” Palacios said.
“The problem is how can we trickle that multiplier, that amount of money to services to the indigent, to help with uncompensated care. That is the big issue here. The County Commissioners Court is trying to figure out a solution to the problem and we are inviting the hospitals, the safety net clinics, the university, the medical school, the government, to come together to find a better solution to the problem.”
Palacios said the Area Health Education Center in San Carlos is a good starting point.
“We figure that the AHEC grant is going to be a step in the right direction in solving that issue. And we are going to be able to build on this because this year we adopted a budget with $1 million being allocated for clinical services. We called it clinical services because we have got to figure out how we work with our safety net clinics to provide direct healthcare as opposed to going through all the (hospital consortium) system and end up trickling back to human life. This is going to allow us to do that,” Palacios said.
“The good thing is right now is we are primarily working with grant funding. We have to build on that and figure out how we can work with the safety net clinics. We have to figure out how we use this synergy, with clinics, hospitals, the university, government to solve the big issue we have. Because, at the end of the day, if we do not solve it and human life is affected, especially the indigent, then, we are never going to solve the cycle of poverty, we are never going to solve the biggest issue we have right now. We have to be mindful of that, we cannot just take care of industry, we have to balance it with preserving life and giving our residents a chance. This (AHEC) program helps us take a step forward.”
Palacios returned to the theme of looking beyond basic infrastructure issues.
“It is a matrix of issues. Our jobs as commissioners goes beyond roads and bridges and drainage. It has to be, how do we address these monumental solutions. We do it by working with those who are in the business of providing bigger solutions. At the end of the day we have to embrace that brother’s keeper, sister’s keeper mentality and say it is beyond government, it is about human capital, human life.
“We have to work with local cities and school districts and neighboring counties. We are the Rio Grande Valley for a reason and we need to start thinking as the Rio Grande Valley. What is good for Cameron County is good for Hidalgo County. It does not matter who is in the lead, back and forth, this territorial argument, this political argument, I have got to do better, you are taking from me, that thought process is being suppressed these days by knowing we can do a lot more together.”
An example of elected officials working together, beyond their traditional boundaries, would be merging the Valley’s three metropolitan planning organizations, Palacios said.
“We talked about the MPO merger, going from $13 million or $14 million, to about $120 million annually, it is just a profound number to start with. It is beyond me why anybody would not think it is a great thing. Does it take us to be over-populated to finally realize that this is not working for us or do we do it today and identify the major corridors that are going to allow you to get from the heart of McAllen to a major expressway system in less than 30 minutes? How do we connect with Cameron County on hurricane corridors? We are in need of another east-west corridor system. We have to start thinking bigger, then we can make monumental progress.”
Palacios concluded the interview by touting Hidalgo County Commissioners Court’s decision to lower the county tax rate by a cent, for first time in 19 years.
“Regardless of who sits on the court, if their heart is in the right place, we will see the best days we have ever had. All I have to find are great partners. If your will is good and your heart is great and you want to help this county grow, the opportunity is there. You just have to seize it.”
Editor’s Note: Click here to watch a livestream interview on Facebook with Hidalgo County Commissioner Joseph Palacios. The interview is part of our Conversation with the Candidates series.