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Jail overcrowding to cause budget shortfall for Texas county in coming year

$18.9 million shortfall is primarily due to increased operating costs at Hidalgo County jail due to overcrowding

By Dina Arévalo
The Monitor, McAllen, Texas

HIDALGO COUNTY, Texas — Severe overcrowding at the Hidalgo County jail will most likely force officials to dip into the county’s reserves in order to offset a nearly $19 million budget shortfall for the 2022-23 fiscal year.

That was the message the county’s financial experts had during a brief budget workshop with the Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court on Thursday.

“We estimate we’ll have $263.8 million of revenue. ... There’s budget increases that... (were) petitioned and discussed of $34 million and that will give us an estimated budget of $282 million,” said Vidal Roman, the county’s budget officer.

“That, taken into consideration, will give us a shortfall of $18.9 million,” he said.

That shortfall will be caused due to some $34 million in rising operations costs across the county; however, the bulk of those increased expenditures will come from one line item alone: the Hidalgo County jail.

“Just the jail is taking $24.7 (million),” Damaris San Miguel, division manager for the county’s budget management division, said via phone Friday.

“So, in reality, there’s not a lot of increases within the regular operating costs of the county, other than the jail overcrowding,” she said.

The jail has been struggling with a severe overcrowding issue for months now. It is equipped to house just 1,200 inmates, however, the county has been paying to house around 600 people at other facilities in the region.

Doing so has cost the county money for both transporting the prisoners, as well as to paying those other facilities for housing costs of the additional inmates.

In 2022 alone, it has cost the county more than $7 million to house the inmates elsewhere.

On Saturday, Starr County officials announced that one inmate whom they had been housing on behalf of Hidalgo County had collapsed in his cell and later died.

The 19-year-old Edinburg man, Brayan Gonzalez, had been in the Starr County jail since April on minor drug charges and one weapons charge, Hidalgo County Sheriff J.E. “Eddie” Guerra told The Monitor Saturday.

The sheriff further stated that overcrowding at his facility has forced Hidalgo County to house inmates as far as Jim Hogg and Brooks County jails.

County officials expect the overcrowding issue to continue well into the 2023 fiscal year, and as such, have allocated $24.7 million into the proposed budget to help address the problem.

Over the last two years, the county has been offsetting the additional jail costs by using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, but those monies are scheduled to run out by 2024, San Miguel said.

“That’s what we’re preparing ourselves (for) and putting that money in (the budget), because, sooner or later, we’re gonna need it,” San Miguel said.

It remains unclear if that allocated money will be used to expand the jail’s footprint to include additional cell space, or to continue housing inmates at outside facilities.

“We don’t know the plan yet, we’re just setting aside the money to see what will be the best option for the county,” San Miguel said.

Nonetheless, the county will be forced to dip into its reserve funds, known as the “unreserved fund balance,” in order to pass a balanced budget by the end of September.

The nearly $19 million shortfall already takes into account additional revenues the county expects to collect in property taxes thanks to a substantial increase in property valuations.

During their regular meeting Thursday, the commissioners’ court unanimously voted to approve keeping the property tax rate the same at $0.575 per $100 valuation.

Valuations have risen so much over the last year that maintaining that tax rate will allow the county to generate an additional $17 million in revenues compared to last year.

The commissioners’ court also indicated they will raise the road and bridge fee charged on vehicle registrations from $10 to $12. That $2 increase will generate approximately $1.2 million in additional revenues, Roman said.

Hidalgo County employees — including elected officials — will also see an across-the-board 2% cost of living increase, the budget officer said.

The budget is still preliminary. County officials have until Sept. 27 to adopt the final budget. But, until then, the budget department is continuing to look for ways to offset the shortfall.

“We have other resources that we can use to minimize the impact to our General Fund fund balance,” San Miguel said.

That includes redirecting more than $4 million from other funds, such as the county’s self-funding health and workers’ compensation insurance, San Miguel said.

Other options include trimming the fat from other parts of the operating budget, and reducing the amount the county’s general fund pays out to the road and bridge fund by $1.5 million, she said.

But implementing those options will make just a small dent in the deficit — reducing it from $18.9 million to $14.5 million that the county will still have to dig into its rainy day fund for.