EDINBURG, RGV – A $50,000 check presentation last Friday gave the Rio Grande Guardian the opportunity to catch up with Jaime Longoria, executive director of Hidalgo County Community Service Agency, and learn how a recently embattled agency is now delivering to low-income families.

Tara Norris, energy assistance billing specialist with CPL Retail Energy handed over the check to Longoria. It will be used to help struggling county residents of Direct Energy companies to pay their electricity bills.

“It comes at a good time of the year with the holidays and helps these families to pay their heating costs and it allows us to put some extra stuffing in their stockings,” Longoria said.

After the ceremonial activities were over Longoria, the former Hidalgo County assistant chief administrator, sat down for an interview. The story he told about Hidalgo County Community Service Agency of today was so different to the one Hidalgo County residents had read about last March, when its former executive director, Maribel Navarro-Saenz, abruptly resigned after being grilled by county commissioners.

The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs had pointed out to Hidalgo County that millions of dollars earmarked for the county’s low-income families had been returned to Austin unspent by Hidalgo County Community Service Agency. County commissioners demanded Navarro-Saenz submit a proposal to ensure all grant funds be dispersed to those in need. Rather than do this, Navarro-Saenz tendered her resignation.

Longoria takes up the story from there.

“The Hidalgo County Community Service Agency is a product of the War on Poverty, the Great Society programs of the 1960s. We are funded primarily through the Department of Health & Human Services. The grant monies go through the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs and are then sent to a CAP agency, a community action agency,” Longoria explained.

“I started as interim executive director on March 17. Less than a month later Commissioners Court appointed me as a permanent executive director. I love it. It’s the best job I ever had. It has been challenging trying to turn things around but I have great staff. It is a great group of people. I have 31 full-time staff members.”

HCCSA gets about $3.5 million a year to help low-income families pay their utility bills and $1.5 million to help low-income families transition out of poverty. The agency helps to pay for educational programs, employment training, textbooks, certification fees, tuition fees, and even repairs to vehicles.

New Mission Statement


 HCCSA has a new mission statement. It hangs on the wall in the agency’s boardroom. It reads: “Our mission is to improve the quality of life and promote the self-sufficiency of low-income and vulnerable households of Hidalgo County by providing effective, efficient and comprehensive services through partnerships and direct funding.”

Longoria said of the mission statement: “It is not just something we hang on the wall. My staff knows we want to be effective, efficient and comprehensive. We try to live it. Everybody who comes into our office is asked to complete a survey, in English or Spanish. They can tell us how we are doing. We ask them ten questions, including how are we doing and are we doing what we said we would do?”

Longoria explained the events leading up to the change in regime at HCCSA.

“We were contacted informally by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. Because of my experience in the colonias division of the State, somebody called me and said are you guys aware that money is being returned unspent? At the time they said it was in excess of a million dollars a year for the past couple of years. In subsequent conversations, very informal conversations, they have said that it was almost half of our allotment. It could have been a million and a half dollars,” Longoria explained.

Asked what went wrong, Longoria said:

“Clearly, there were some inefficiencies,” Longoria said. “Take technology, for instance. The staff did not have email capability. Everything we did here was via fax machine. All the communication we did with the electric companies was back and forth via fax – and I do not mean a computer fax machine, I mean a physical machine where you take something through the machine and wait for that response to come back via paper. Literally, the first thing I did was turn my IT guy loose and say, let’s open up the Internet. Of course, we monitor the Internet. We are being responsible but we gave everybody an email address. We said you guys are free to call agencies, you are free to call the electric companies. The result, for example, is getting to know Tara (Tara Norris of Direct Energy), explaining problems clients have with utility bills. Once that communication was established we were able to do some cool things.”

Longoria said that among those new “cool things” is the ability to service clients immediately and seeing the staff buy into the new method of operation.

“The result has been that we are now able to provide assistance immediately. When I started on March 17, a client would walk in and be told they were getting an appointment in August. They came in with all their documents in March and they were told, come back in August. Well, by the time they came back in August those documents were stale and they had to leave again to get current income information. It was almost an endless loop.

“What we did was work with the State of Texas. We asked the State to come in and assist us. They provided technical assistance, they retrained the staff. We changed to a service model whereby a client walks in today and we give them service today. We give them a determination of benefits right there on the spot. We help them with that current utility bill and we are able to assist into the future. We have to access their bill histories, once that comes in we can help them with future months that they might qualify for, six or eight months into the future. The problem that we can ran into, and I am going to be very honest… we had 3,500 applications in the back room. We did not know what that meant. We had stockpiled applications that were not done.

“The staff worked through that pile and once we got finished with the pile, in early June, by late June we realized we might not have enough money to honor our obligations to the end so we had to slow down. We limited until the end of December. We are limited in what we can do. But, once January hits we can once again provide full benefits to the people of Hidalgo County. We are real excited.”

Asked how an agency could return millions of dollars when Hidalgo County has such a high number of low-income families, Longoria said: “I do not know. This was an amazing place. It is a testament to the staff that they worked as hard as they did to be able to provide the services they did. The model that was here previously was the applicant would come in, the worker would take all the pertinent information and then hand the application off to somebody in the back room who would determine benefits and send a letter off some time later. That has changed completely. There is face-to-face discussion. The client walks out with a letter, this is how we are going to help you and we are going to evaluate how we are going to help you in the future.”

Longoria said he cannot take credit for the new model.

“It was not my idea. It is the model that is used throughout the State of Texas. The state came in and said, ‘Why are you guys doing this?’ They had monitoring and the monitoring, to be honest with you were very good. The files were in perfect order. We had a series of layers and reviews. All of these files were impeccable. We had audit after audit after audit. We had great files but very few services being delivered. But the State, when they looked at that… we were reviewing files five times before a penny was sent to the client. That makes it very difficult. It is almost like a funnel. You have all these applications coming in and a trickle coming out. We have changed that model and now we are fine tuning. We are random sampling our files to figure out what the error rate is and we are training to those errors. We are addressing those errors and then we are correcting as we go.”

Asked to comment on Navarro-Saenz, Longoria said: “She served 30 years and really had an impeccable record when it came to her record of compliance and had a very good run as executive director.”

Community Needs Assessment & Strategic Plan

Fast forward to today and Longoria provides details of a community needs assessment and a strategic plan that has just been developed.

“The needs assessment is the result of a series of surveys we did with both the clients that came in our door, the low income population in general, and elected officials and community leaders. We asked, what are the things we need in this community? We asked the clients of other community groups, who may or may not be clients of ours. We put those surveys together and we added Census data to find out how much poverty we have in Hidalgo County. We found our top needs are emergency assistance for food, utilities, prescription drugs, rent assistance. We found a need for improved veterans’ assistance. We found we need better service for the elderly in terms of crime prevention and fraud prevention, elder abuse prevention. We found we need to have better communication with non-profits, sometimes clients are reporting ambiguity, they do not know where to go for help. They go to agencies and they are not referred to the right place or they are not referred at all.

“Then we said, how are we going to address those needs? We developed a strategic plan based upon our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. We looked at what affects our agency. Our board got together and decided, these are the strategies we want to employ. We came up with 13 action items as to ways we can address those needs, both internally or partnering with other agencies. Once we did that we developed a CAP (Community Action Plan) plan, the nuts and bolts on how we are going to get it done. We submitted all these documents to the State and said this is what we are going to do for the next year.”

Asked for examples of how things have improved, Longoria said: “We have satellite locations in Mission, McAllen, and San Juan. We had a temporary one in Alamo. We are evaluating sites in Delta and Weslaco. County Commissioners have been so supportive. For years we only had one office. We are hearing from our clients loud and clear, it is hard to get here.”

Longoria gave another example: “We are developing a partnership with Health & Human Services whereby this agency would be a navigator for SNAP. Clients will be able to come here and we can help them fill out an application for food stamps. We understand that the elderly may not be able to access the Internet. Applying for food stamps is going digital. What do you do if you are a 75-year-old disabled person that does not the skills or the knowledge or the grandchildren to help you? We can help them get connected.”

Longoria gave another example: “We are trying to make it easier for clients as they walk through the door. We will have a kiosk with a computer available for the clients and a volunteer, hopefully that will be able to help the client if they want to apply for food stamps, establish paternity, parent classes; allow the client access to the Internet.”

Longoria gave another example: “We are working with Valley Metro. They were going to abandon the bus route half a mile from here because they did not have the ridership. We worked with City of Edinburg and now we have been put on the route, now we have got a bus stop right outside our offices. We want to be where the people are. We want to be accessible.”

Longoria gave another example: “We are developing a new website, much more user-friendly, in English and Spanish. It is just about to launch. We never had it in Spanish before.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story shows  a $50,000 check presentation made by  CPL Retail Energy  to Hidalgo County Community Service Agency.