EDINBURG, RGV – Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia says he does not want UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine to be so starved of funds that it becomes known as Tortilla Tech.
However, he says this could happen if Hidalgo County residents do not vote to create a healthcare district or other municipalities in the area renege on a commitment they made to fund the medical school.
“When I was young, our local university here (Pan American University) was referred to as Tortilla Tech. If you wanted to get a higher quality education because there were better facilities, better teachers, you had to go up north. What are we going to be stuck with again, a Tortilla Tech-type medical school or what we are entitled to, a fully funded medical school just like everybody else in the state of Texas?” Garcia asked.
“Everyone else in the state of Texas has a hospital or healthcare district and a great medical school. We want a great medical school for our children so that we can bring medical investment to our area, so we can have high paying jobs. It is not just about those doctors that are graduating that are going to be making a nice pay check. It is about the people who will be working in labs, the people that can work in the healthcare industry and research, and the good paying jobs that brings. That is what it is all about.”
Memorandum of Understanding
When Rio Grande Valley legislators were working on legislation to set up a UTRGV School of Medicine, the four largest cities in Hidalgo County – McAllen, Edinburg, Pharr and Mission – agreed to invest in the school in order to ensure that the first two years of medical education were based in the Upper Valley. McAllen agreed to pay the UT System up to $2 million a year for ten years, from 2014 to 2023. Edinburg agreed to $1 million a year for ten years; Pharr $500,000 a year for ten years, and Mission $250,000 a year for ten years. Hidalgo County agreed to pay the UT System $1 million a year for ten years. Each of the entities signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the UT System in 2014.
Section 4 of the MOU is titled: Commitments of Local Governments. The language states that “All such funds from the Cities are to be used to support years 1 and 2 of medical education in Hidalgo County for faculty support, operations, programs and directly related activities of the medical school.”
The City of Mission was the first to go back on its word. Mayor Norberto Salinas said he will willingly give to the UTRGV School of Medicine, if the idea of a healthcare district in Hidalgo County is dropped. Voters in Hidalgo County will decide the fate of the healthcare district idea in November. If the measure is passed, Hidalgo County and its larger cities will no longer have to make a financial contribution to the UTRGV School of Medicine, with the healthcare district picking up the slack.
The City of McAllen has also gone back on its word. It did not pay any money to UT in 2015 and its budget for 2016 has no funds for the medical school.
Asked if Edinburg is still committed to the UTRGV School of Medicine, Mayor Garcia said: “We are committed. We paid on time. We intend to keep paying on time. This is probably the most important thing going on in this county. I cannot believe anyone would not give it the importance it needs, and that is to keep their word.”
Asked if his understanding is that the financial commitment from the major cities in Hidalgo County to the UTRGV School of Medicine was made in order to secure the first and second year of medical education in Hidalgo County, Garcia said: “Absolutely. That was the investment. The idea is to have the medical school come to fruition to begin with and then, now, we need to have sustainability. It costs $50 million a year to operate a school. UTRGV has funding for $30 million. The other $20 million has to come from somewhere.”
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling defended his city’s decision not to invest in the UTRGV School of Medicine. In an interview after this week’s city commission meeting ended, Darling intimated that the city’s decision is connected to the level of investment UTRGV is making in McAllen.
“We have not paid anything at this stage but I think we are going to talk about it. I am going to do an op-ed on this. We love UTRGV. The UT board just announced a research center on the South Campus,” Darling told the Rio Grande Guardian.
The Doctors Hospital at Renaissance (DHR) South Campus is on Dove Avenue, McAllen.
“I am going to have the University come back and explain what they are going to do on the South Campus. Originally, I had written a letter to the Chancellor, the ex-Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. In part of the negotiations they (UT) said they want McAllen to be part of the university. I thought, okay,” Darling said.
“One of the things they said was, well, we think the administrative office would be appropriate there. Because I worked for the hospital at the time, I knew about the research potential so I said, I would like the research center in McAllen. So, they approved the South Campus. I also said I would like to extend the Masters programs and PhD programs into McAllen because they are already established here. The fourth one (request), of course, is to participate in the advanced manufacturing of the engineering department. They have done a little bit of that.”
Darling said the City of McAllen set aside ten acres for a UTRGV administration complex. He said the land was worth about half a million dollars. “Then they said, no, we are going to go out to bids on it, which pitted everybody against each other. It was a horrible, horrible way to start off, saying we are here as UTRGV and we are a regional facility. So, they backed off of that. We said, what about the ten acres and they said, we are not even interested in it. We said, fine, we will withdraw it.”
Darling said the City of McAllen did contribute $2 million to the UTRGV School of Medicine in the first year, 2014.
“We said, up to $2 million, rather than $2 million for a reason. If you look at the new university, Brownsville is going to benefit by hundreds of millions of dollars in construction. Edinburg is going to benefit from hundreds of millions of dollars in construction. Harlingen is now going to get the full use of the RAHC (Regional Academic Health Center) with third and fourth year students. So, we said, okay, we are supposed to be a part of this, when are we going to be a part of it? That is why we said up to $2 million.”
Darling said there was never a formal quid pro quo arrangement with UT.
“They never made a specific promise in writing. They did not say we are going to put the administrative building in McAllen. They certainly talked about it. They talked about a research center. We had been talking about that for two years. That was an up and down thing. And they talked a little bit about PhD programs. But, no promises. I understand that, but it is a two-way street,” Darling said.
“When we were starting to pay the money they did not have a medical school. They didn’t have any students. They were building it. It was not the same budget. So we (McAllen City Commission) met and talked about it and asked, where is this money going? Why would you need a full budget before you start the school? Even now they only have one first year class.”
“So, will the City of McAllen contribute to the UTRGV School of Medicine in future years,” a reporter asked Darling. He responded: “Yes, absolutely. It is kind of like, yes, let’s talk. (UTRGV) President (Guy) Bailey has been in talks with me and has been very receptive. And UT System board of regents just approved a research center. I am going to invite them to meet with the City Commission so they can tell us, here is where we are and here is where we are going. Hopefully, the city commission will get a better idea of where they are going.”
Some may view Mayor Darling’s stance today as different to what it was a few years back. In a May, 2013, article in the McAllen Monitor, Darling said: “This is not a provincial decision for McAllen. We’re putting up money for it to be there (in Edinburg).”
UTRGV Vice President Veronica Gonzales said it is not true that UT has not invested in McAllen.
“UTRGV is committed to improving the health and well-being of the community throughout the entire Rio Grande Valley. This summer, UTRGV opened a primary care clinic in McAllen and just last week, the U.T. Board of Regents approved the leasing of an 86,150 square foot state-of-the art research facility in McAllen that will be used for medical research, education and clinical purposes,” Gonzales said.
“The research facility is one of the most significant financial investments UTRGV has made to date. Additionally, since 2015, UTRGV medical residents have been providing medical care for patients in hospitals, including McAllen Medical and DHR, in clinics, such as the Hope Clinic, via the medical school’s mobile van, which provided services at the Games of Texas hosted this summer in McAllen, and at health fairs.
“The medical residents and faculty provide general health assessments, immunizations, exercise and nutrition programs, diabetes education, sports physicals, services to the deaf and hard of hearing among other services throughout McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley.”