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Rep.Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, second from left, offers advice to the Edinburg City Council and top city administrators on Friday, December 5, during a legislative workshop held at City Hall. The preliminary legislative agenda, which has not yet been formally adopted by the city council or the EEDC, was presented to her, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Rep. Aaron Peña, Jr., D-Edinburg. Strategies dealing with the city airport received top billing at the legislative work session. Edinburg wants the 490-acre facility to be enhanced so it can also protect the public safety while it promotes international trade and commerce. About a dozen legislative initiatives were discussed. Featured, from left, are: Ricardo López-Guerra, chief of staff for Gonzáles; Gonzáles; Hinojosa; Peña, and Orlando Salinas, chief-of-staff for Peña. See story later in this posting.

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It’s the Holiday Season and the McAllen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is making plans for their Christmas Luncheon scheduled for Thursday, December 18 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Renaissance Casa de Palmas Hotel.  The luncheon is being sponsored by Armondo Brennan of New York Life/Nautilus Group. The gathering will give new members an opportunity to introduce themselves to the membership. A short presentation will be made by Brennan on his services with New York Life and The Nautilus Group. Everyone dressed in some holiday attire will receive a special holiday gift courtesy of New York Life/Nautilus Group. Door Prizes will also be given away courtesy of the McAllen Hispanic Chamber and New York Life. Tickets to the luncheon are $15. For reservations and/or to purchase your ticket call the MHCC office at 928-0060. Featured, from left, making the final preparations for the luncheon, are: Armondo Brennan and Hazel Caraveo of New York Life/Nautilus Group; Rose Ramírez, Vice Chair of Health Issues for the McAllen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and Cynthia M. Sakulenzki, MHCC President and CEO of the McAllen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

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Once again, South Texas College’s Business Office has gone above and beyond, this time earning the college accolades from the Government Treasurers’ Organization of Texas. The organization awarded STC its Certificate of Distinction for the college’s investment strategy.

The GTOT conducts an elective Investment Policy Certification Program, which is designed to provide professional guidance in developing an investment policy and to recognize outstanding examples of written investment policies. The program’s Certificate of Distinction is awarded by GTOT to entities that have developed an investment policy which meets established criteria. The certificate is awarded for two years and then may be renewed upon review. STC’s investing team poses with GTOT certificate. Featured, from left, is STC’s investing team: Myriam López, STC senior account; Mary Elizondo, STC comptroller; and Alma Church, STC senior accountant. See story later in this posting.

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Gov. Perry to offer $1.5 million economic incentive to help land Verizon Wireless facility for Edinburg

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Gov. Rick Perry has authorized the use of $1.5 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund to help the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation recruit Verizon Wireless to the three-time All-America City, legislative sources confirmed on Wednesday, December 3.

The EEDC, which is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council, for months has been working behind-the-scenes to land a Verizon Wireless component in Edinburg.

The efforts have been dubbed the “Las Palmas Project” by Ramiro Garza, Jr., executive director of the EEDC, which is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

Earlier this year, City Councilmember Noé Garza told reporters that the EEDC was pursuing a Verizon Wireless call center.

Details about what type of facility, its projected employment and annual payroll, and its location in Edinburg were not revealed by the sources, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to publicly speak about the ongoing legislative negotiations with the governor’s office.

However, the sources reported the Perry’s office would soon be drafting a commitment letter with those details, and that Perry would tap the Texas Enterprise Fund for the state’s contribution to the local effort.

It would be the Republican governor’s second major infusion of Texas Enterprise Fund money into Edinburg within the last few months.

On Wednesday, July 2, Perry was in Edinburg at the University of Texas-Pan American to announce that he authorized the use of $1.6 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund as an economic incentive to lure the planned construction of a $180 million denim-manufacturing plant in north Edinburg.

Santana Textiles Corporation of Ceara, Brazil, one of the world’s largest denim manufacturers, plans to construct – on a 23-acre site located in Edinburg’s North Industrial Park – a 300,000-square-foot complex. The first phase of the sprawling facility, which will be built in three stages, is slated to open in 2010. When the three phases are completed in 2014, the foreign-owned enterprise, which will include a treatment plant, will eventually encompass about 400,000-square-feet of manufacturing space.

EEDC officials predict that about 800 new jobs, averaging about $26,000 apiece annually, will be created by the Santana Textiles Corporation plant when completed.

The denim manufacturing plant was the first project in South Texas to receive money from the Texas Enterprise Fund.

The Santana Textiles Corporation manufacturing plant will built on land which is part of the North Industrial Park, which is owned by the EEDC.

The EEDC donated the land to the Brazilian firm, and worked on making key infrastructure improvements in order to ready the site.

According to its web site, Verizon Wireless built and operates the nation’s most reliable wireless network.

Headquartered in Basking Ridge, N.J., Verizon Wireless has the largest number of retail customers in the industry and is the most profitable wireless company in the U.S. The company is a joint venture of Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ) and Vodafone (NYSE and LSE: VOD).

The company has 71,000 employees and generates annual revenues of almost $44 billion.

Created in 2003 at Perry’s request, the Texas Enterprise Fund, which had an initial investment of $295 million in state money, has been used as a competitive tool to help close the deal on the recruitment of new businesses to Texas, as well as to boost existing businesses.

According to Perry’s office, the Texas Enterprise Fund has helped bring projects to the state that have created almost 52,000 new jobs and $13.7 billion in capital investment.

The EEDC is governed by a five-member board of directors which includes former Mayor Richard García, Mayor Joe Ochoa, Fred Palacios, Elias Longoria, Jr., and Dr. Glenn E. Martínez, Ph.D.

The EEDC sits on a treasury of millions of dollars generated annually, mostly from the collection of a one-half cent economic development sales tax, for jobs-creation projects.

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Airport, UT-RAHC, public safety, voting lists could highlight legislative issues for Edinburg

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Adding regional crisis management capabilities at the South Texas International Airport in Edinburg, plus securing $10 million for the University of Texas Regional Academic Health Center (UT-RAHC) are among the top legislative priorities being considered by the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation and the Edinburg City Council.

Local leaders also want key Valley lawmakers to encourage the Texas Department of Transportation to release $850,000 for a runway extension and other upgrades at the airport.  City officials contend that money had been previously approved, but its release has been delayed because of bureaucratic and/or political red-tape.

Another proposed initiative involves  protecting the EEDC from any legislation that could stop it from existing, as well as supporting state financial support for several major state programs from which the EEDC can apply for grants, also are part of the municipal government’s developing legislative wish-list.

The EEDC, a public entity, is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

The EEDC controls a public treasury of millions of dollars generated annually, mostly from the collection of a one-half cent economic development sales tax, for jobs-creation projects.

About a dozen proposals are part of a draft of the 2009 Edinburg Legislative Agenda, which was unveiled before the city’s state legislative delegation at Edinburg City Hall during a noon working luncheon on Thursday, December 5.

The document was written by Austin-based legislative consultant Elvia Cabellero-López, formerly of Weslaco, in conjunction with the city’s elected leadership and top municipal government staff members.

The wish list, if finalized, would go before the Texas Legislature, which returns to work at the Capitol in Austin on Tuesday, January 13, for its five-month regular session.

The preliminary legislative agenda, which has not yet been formally adopted by the city council or the EEDC, was presented by a majority of the Edinburg City Council to Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, Rep. Aaron Peña, Jr., D-Edinburg, and Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen.

In addition to Ochoa, Councilmember Alma Garza and Councilmember Noé Garza (no relation) attended the legislative workshop.

Mayor Pro Tem Gene Espinoza and Councilmember Gus García, Jr. were excused on important business.

Ochoa was the only member of the EEDC board of directors to participate in the work session, which was open to the public.

The EEDC is governed by a five-member board of directors which includes former Mayor Richard García (no relation to Councilmember García), Ochoa, Fred Palacios, Elias Longoria, Jr., and Dr. Glenn E. Martínez, Ph.D.

Ramiro Garza, Jr., EEDC executive director, laid out the EEDC’s portion of the legislative agenda during the December 5 meeting.

Edinburg “homeland security”

Strategies dealing with the city airport received top billing at the legislative work session.

Edinburg wants the 490-acre facility to be enhanced so it can also protect the public safety while it promotes international trade and commerce.

The rationale for that transformation was detailed in a packet distributed to the legislative delegation during the December 5 work session.

In a letter outlining the city’s goals for the airport, which is located along U.S. Expressway 281 about nine miles north of downtown, Ochoa suggested that the transportation complex – which is being developed as a regional air cargo center– should also be strengthened as a crisis response center to handle state and national emergencies, such as a direct hit on South Texas by a hurricane.

“Within the past five years, the Rio Grande Valley has been threatened four times by major hurricanes, and this year, Hurricane Dolly, a Category 2 hurricane, hit the Rio Grande Valley,” he noted.

Hurricane Dolly hit South Padre Island on July 23, with sustained winds of 100 mph, and as the intense storm system cut west through the rest of the Valley, is cut power to more than 212,000 Valley home, and dumped more than 16 inches of rain, causing flooding misery.

It also caused more than $1 billion in estimated damages.

Ideal location for crisis management

The local airport’s location is a major advantage to South Texans, he noted, and the airport already has a proven track record, the mayor believes.

“Various agencies already have utilized the airport to coordinate pre- and post-incident management, he reported. “Further, the state will be utilizing the airport as a staging area for buses and ambulances in the event that evacuation of the population in the region is ordered by the governor due to a major catastrophe,” Ochoa said.

As Hurricane Dolly approached South Texas, Gov. Rick Perry activated more than 1,000 members from Texas’ military forces, and ordered 250 buses stationed in San Antonio to come down for evacuation purposes.

But had HurricaneDolly increased in intensity before landfall – or other catastrophic events unfolded – the Edinburg airport would have been pressed into even more serious service, the mayor revealed.

“If Hurricane Dolly had been classified as a Category 3 hurricane, the airport would be been the staging point for 2,000 buses (to transport evacuees) and 300 ambulances,” Ochoa said.

Municipal leaders believe that, with legislative support, they can tap into state and federal revenue sources to add the emergency response capability to the city-owned airport.

“In light of recent natural disasters in the United States, we wish to pursue additional funding options,” Ochoa explained. “The money could come from “the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which would allow the South Texas International Airport at Edinburg to become a regional staging area for state and emergency response.”

UT-RAHC, EEDC

The EEDC and city council are also supporting a $10 million request from the UT System for the UT-RAHC component, located next to UT-Pan American, which serves as a sophisticated medical research facility.

The UT-RAHC is a $20 million medical research and education facility located immediately north of the University of Texas-Pan American campus.

The UT-RAHC in Edinburg is part of a three-city, upper-division medical school system that includes an educational component in Harlingen and a postgraduate school of public health in Brownsville.

The UT-RAHC in Edinburg is the medical research component of the three-city South Texas system.

The $10 million in funding is important for ongoing crucial research at the facility, whose scientists are researching ways to more effectively identify and treat illnesses that hurt border residents, including diabetes.

In a defensive move, the EEDC, through its executive director, urged the state lawmakers to oppose any legislative efforts that would restrict the public entity’s abilities to fund economic development projects.

The EEDC executive director noted that although there has been no such legislation pre-filed, local legislators must remain on alert.

Thousands of legislative measures, including amendments which can pass undetected, will be introduced in the upcoming regular session.

The EEDC also supports continued funding of the Texas Enterprise Fund, the Texas Skills Development Fund, and the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, which represent sources of revenue from which the EEDC can seek state financial assistance for local jobs-creation projects.

Public safety, mental health, parks funding

Highlights of other preliminary legislative issues for Edinburg include the following requests:

• Introduce legislation to require the state to reimburse local governments for the costs of transporting certain mentally-ill patients to the nearest Mental Health and Mental Rehabilitation facilities. In many cases, the city police department reported, most of those patients must be transferred, at city expense, to MHMR facilities in San Antonio;

• Support legislation to allow volunteer firefighters to get free college tuition;

• Support legislation to exempt volunteer fire departments in Texas from paying sales taxes on diesel fuel for fire apparatus;

• Introduce legislation to require county election departments to provide current and updated voter registration listings to city secretary offices, many which handle local municipal elections. Edinburg claims that the Hidalgo County Elections Department is failing to update voter registrations in a timely and continuous basis, thereby creating conflict and confusion when residents go to vote.

It has been more than a year since the Hidalgo County Elections Department provide the Edinburg City Secretary’s Office with updated information, which results in the number of provisional voters whose ballots are vulnerable to legal challenges.

• Introduce legislation that would bring City Secretary Offices under a law passed in 2007.

According to the Texas Department of Health Care Services, House Bill 1739, which mandates electronic death registration for funeral homes and medical certifiers, was signed by the governor on June 15, 2007, and took effect on September 1, 2007.

Section 193.002 of the Texas Health & Safety Code will now require the person in charge of interment or in charge of removal of a body from a registration district for disposition to file death certificates electronically as specified by the State Registrar.

According to the city, funeral directors are now required to use this new system to file and acquire a death certificate for a cost of $24 for the first certificate, and $4 for more than one.  This new system bypasses the city.

• Support state funding for the Texas Recreation Parks Account Grant Program, a source of grant revenue for local efforts to build public park systems, and support legislation that would creating a state constitutional amendment to sporting goods sales tax revenue for use for state and local parks;

• Introduce legislation to create a state low-cost spay/neuter program, through the Texas Department of Health, or require the state to help pay for local efforts associated with animal control.  Currently, Edinburg is spending $170,000 a year to send stray animals to the local Humane Society, which provides care for unwanted animals and lost pets in the hopes of returning them to the homes of loving owners; and

• Introduce legislation that would amend Section 852.108 of the Texas Municipal Retirement Act to allow retired city employees to return to work with the former public employer without the penalty of having their monthly benefits suspended.

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Sen. Hinojosa, Rep. Gonzáles request action by Texas Attorney General to stop unlawful towing companies

By ARTURO BALLESTEROS

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, have asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to investigate two towing companies in Hidalgo County that are believed to be illegally towing vehicles.

(Editor’s Note: The two lawmakers did not identify the towing companies.)

In a letter sent to the Attorney General’s Office, Hinojosa asked the state agency to begin strict enforcement of laws designed to protect consumers from rogue towing companies.

South Texas news outlets have run stories on fraudulent towing practices, including posting signs where none are authorized and charging exorbitant fees to release vehicles.

“Illegal towing has been a problem in Hidalgo County for some time. News outlets have reported on towing companies that post their own ‘No Parking’ signs without any authorization, and then tow cars away,” Hinojosa said. “With the fees charged by these towing companies, these towing companies are basically holding people’s vehicles hostage. These astronomical fees are like ransoms.”

Gonzáles said towing abuses in Hidalgo County “have gone on for far too long. I am hopeful that with General Abbott’s assistance we can put an end to illegal towing practices.”

Hinojosa’s letter specifically asks the Attorney General’s Office to pursue legal action against towing companies engaging in deceptive practices. The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) has regulatory oversight of the towing industry and together with the McAllen Police Department, is investigating claims of illegal towing practice in Hidalgo County.

Hinojosa cited the holiday shopping season as a perfect time to ramp up efforts to stop unlawful towing.

“The economy, as anyone can tell, is not in the best shape. During the next several weeks, when Hidalgo County families are doing their holiday shopping, losing a few hundred dollars to an unscrupulous towing company can mean fewer gifts under the Christmas tree,” he said. “This is an issue of consumer protection, of protecting our pockets from thieves who are out to exploit hard-working Texans. I will be working with the attorney general to make sure we stay focused on this issue until we eliminate illegal towing.”

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Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas recognized with McAllen chamber’s Teddy Roosevelt Award

By CARI LAMBRECHT

The McAllen Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, December 4, presented Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas III with its prestigious TR, or Teddy Roosevelt Award, given to individuals who, in the face of adversity, “do the right thing.”

The chamber chose Salinas for his stance against the Border Wall and for his success in working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to rethink the wall and instead rebuild portions of the county’s levees, said Steve Ahlenius, president and CEO of the chamber.

The levee-barrier alternative, which Salinas fought for in Washington D.C., will save residences and businesses from having to purchase mandatory flood insurance and will protect southern Hidalgo County’s bustling industrial parks from flooding.

Not one piece of private land was seized.

This is a compromise we can all live with and appreciate, Ahlenius said at the luncheon.

Salinas’ dedication to the economic prosperity of the region — the work on the Rio South Texas Economic Council and the lobbying efforts to bring U.S. Highway 281 up to interstate standards — was also noted.

The award, a beautifully drawn graphite portrait of the 26th president captioned and framed with one of President Roosevelt’s most famous quotes, was designed by McAllen artist Joe Taylor. The quote reads:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

Salinas accepted the award on behalf of the Hidalgo County Commissioner’s Court and his staff, acknowledging those who stood beside him in the fight against the border wall. He then imparted another famous Teddy Roosevelt quote to the crowd, pertinent to the situation:

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.

Salinas explained to the crowd that it was hard to have to explain to his five children why he appeared in the newspaper, his face plastered on a sign during an anti-border wall rally. Those were some dark days, he recounted, but hard decisions must be made and not left up to chance.

“Whether you think I’m right or wrong, I did what I thought was right,” Salinas said.

For more information, visit http://www.co.hidalgo.tx.us

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Sen. Lucio condemns alleged human rights violations by Texas’ 12 schools which are supposed to help, protect 5,000 people with mental retardation

By SEN. EDDIE LUCIO, JR.

In June 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) launched a formal investigation of Lubbock State School triggered by multiple allegations that the constitutional rights of residents were being denied. Earlier this year, on the heels of the Lubbock investigation, the DOJ announced it had reason to suspect similar violations were occurring at the 11 remaining state schools and centers. The results of these investigations, released this week, document widespread abuse and neglect throughout the system.

In direct response to the DOJ findings, I plan to file legislation creating a Bill of Rights for residents of state schools.

This is not the first report to indicate instances of abuse and neglect in our state schools, but the DOJ’s findings show the frequency and severity of these violations are worse than any of us could have imagined. I am horrified and outraged by the blatant violations of basic human rights occurring at our state schools. The DOJ findings are an embarrassment to the State of Texas and prove the need for immediate reform.

The 12 Texas state schools and centers house over 5,000 children and adults with developmental disabilities. The DOJ investigations indicated numerous violations at each of the facilities, ranging from failure to provide appropriate health care and improper use of restraints, to neglect, maltreatment and failure to prevent physical and sexual abuse.

I am especially disheartened to hear reports of a growing number of children in these large institutions which often house thousands of adults at a single facility. Children at state schools show the desperation of parents longing for better alternatives that do not come.

The DOJ report follows a Legislative Budget Board (LBB) report issued only a week ago addressing the expense of state schools and recommending a shift in spending by providing funding for more community-based options.

We want to create as many options as possible for Texas families, but we know that for the most part, individuals with developmental delays function better and prefer to live in community and/or family settings rather than in large institutions.  In the past, we have failed to present these individuals with an adequate number of viable options, and many have been forced into state schools for the complete lack of an alternative.

In addition to the Bill of Rights, I will also file legislation to address systematic reform for children and young people with developmental disabilities and mental illness. I don’t want to waste time assigning blame, but I am adamant that we create a new system that is person-centered and assures accountability for those who serve as stewards for vulnerable populations.

The DOJ report indicates a crisis every bit as serious as has been documented at the Texas Youth Commission and Child Protective Services, and should therefore be handled with the utmost urgency and commitment.

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South Texas College, Women’s Business Center, Wells Fargo, N.A., and Southwest Community Investment Corporation partner to teach students financial skills

By HELEN J. ESCOBAR

South Texas College’s Student in Free Enterprise (SIFE), in conjunction with partners Women’s Business center, Wells Fargo N.A., and Southwest Community Investment Corporation, recently helped more than 40 STC students prepare for a bright financial future.

Financing Strategies for your Small Business and Managing your Personal Credit, by Brent Smith, business banking manager for Wells Fargo, taught students about a variety of financial matters ranging from the importance of credit scores, to creating a budget, to managing a bank account, to types of credit, among many covered topics.

“You hear horror stories about college students lured into taking on credit cards and loans they simply can’t afford,” said José Alemán, STC SIFE Team president and Business Administration major. “Our goal was to give students an opportunity to get some basic information, ask questions in an open environment and be armed with the tools and knowledge they need to protect themselves from bad financial situations. We also hope that participants walked away with a clear idea about saving for the future; your retirement savings can never begin too early in life.”

STC’s SIFE team is building on a long track record of developing and implementing fun and innovative financial education programs for the college community. The group’s goal is to use the lessons from their coursework to help others in the community learn and grow as business professionals, as well as learn new skills and methods for saving, spending, credit use, credit repair, shopping effectiveness, making ends meet, and more. The college students develop and implement projects in the community as action learning projects to enhance and develop success in the Rio Grande Valley.

For more information about South Texas College’s SIFE team contact Brad Altmeyer, business administration instructor, at 872-2723.

In South Texas, the Women’s Business Center (WBC) – headquartered on the third floor of the Wells Fargo Bank, 2852 W. Trenton Road, on the corner of Trenton and McColl roads in Edinburg – is playing a major role in helping ensure that all Rio Grande Valley residents have access to key information on how to succeed in business.

“The Women’s Business Center is focused on providing services to area women who want to learn more about how to start or expand their companies,” said María “Charo” Mann, the WBC’s chief executive officer.

“We feature, free-of-charge, a dedicated staff which can help guide people from all walks of life to their goals,” she noted. “Plus, we offer seminars, presentations, and other special events – often at no charge  – that provide South Texans with direct contact to other professionals who are experts in what it takes to start and expand a successful business.”

The local Women’s Business Center has launched an Internet website at http://www.wbc-rgv.org to provide more information to South Texans, or may also be contacted at 618-2828.

The Women’s Business Center is one of 98 WBCs nationwide, located through 44 states and two territories which are governed by the Office of Women’s Business Ownership of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The SBA’s goal is for the women’s business centers to promote the growth of women-owned businesses by providing business training and technical assistance, helping with access to credit and capital, and identifying federal contract and international trade opportunities. Last year, more than 129,000 clients received assistance through the 98 women’s business centers.

“We provide a general overview of what is involved to be in business, such as marketing, financial projections, product research, and successfully obtaining loans from banks,” said Mann. “We are seeing women who want to start up home-based businesses, who want to go into franchising of restaurants, and who want to get enter the environmental fields. Their goals vary, from starting small, home-based businesses, to expanding very sophisticated companies.”

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McAllen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to unveil its legislative agendas on Tuesday, December 9

Cynthia M. Sakulenzki, President/CEO of the McAllen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the organization will hold a press conference on Tuesday, December 9, to present its Legislative Priorities for the upcoming regular session of the Texas Legislature.

The news conference will begin at 2 p.m. in the MHCC office, located at 24 North 12th Street in McAllen.

“This year we will be unveiling 10 Legislative Priorities that will serve as our compass to crafting a more comprehensive legislative strategy for the South Texas community,” Sakulenzki said. “These 10 goals are a starting point that will be followed up by a ‘Community Policy Forum’ in the weeks ahead. We will invite members from every sector of the community to come in and present their views on needed policy reforms at the local, state and federal level.”

Upon completion of the forum, the MHCC will forward its’ findings and final policy recommendations to the area’s elected officials.  MHCC’s Board of Directors and members will also formally present these findings at the State Capitol in Austin on Tuesday, January 27, and in Washington, D.C. before the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate on March 9 and 10.

“I’m really excited about this new way of formulating our policy recommendations,” added Sakulenzki. “Given the state of the economy and this critical moment in our history, we thought it prudent to try this bold approach that is comprehensive, inclusive and personal.”

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South Texas College continues gaining accolades for fiscal responsibility, investment strategy

By HELEN J. ESCOBAR

Once again, South Texas College’s Business Office has gone above and beyond, this time earning the college accolades from the Government Treasurers’ Organization of Texas. The organization awarded STC its Certificate of Distinction for the college’s investment strategy.

The GTOT conducts an elective Investment Policy Certification Program, which is designed to provide professional guidance in developing an investment policy and to recognize outstanding examples of written investment policies. The program’s Certificate of Distinction is awarded by GTOT to entities that have developed an investment policy which meets established criteria. The certificate is awarded for two years and then may be renewed upon review.

“We are honored to receive this award because the group vigorously reviewed our investment policy, and have independently affirmed that STC has developed and implemented an investment policy that meets the requirements of the Public Funds Investment Act and the standards for prudent public investing established by the Government Treasurer’s Organization of Texas,” said Mary Elizondo, STC comptroller.

STC is one of only 77 Texas agencies to apply for and earn the certification and is the only college in the Rio Grande Valley to receive the distinction.

“STC is committed to excellence in all facets of our operations and we are especially focused on fiscal responsibility because we are charged with managing public funds. We continue to implement stringent controls that are audited regularly,” said Diana Peña, STC vice president of finance and administrative services. “STC is one of thousands of state agencies and one of a few that signed up for an elective review of our financial investment procedures to ensure we are implementing best practices. The distinction is not only an honor, but helps us ensure that our procedures and philosophy are sound. I am extremely proud of our Business Office team.”

Earlier this year, STC was awarded the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting by the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada for its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. An elective review process, 2008 marks the fifth consecutive year the college has earned the award.

For more information about the Government Treasurers’ Organization of Texas visit http://www.gtot.net

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NCO Financial Systems, Inc., self-proclaimed “world’s largest” debt collector, hit with financial  penalties for violating Texas Debt Collection Act

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Friday, December 5, resolved the state’s enforcement action against debt collection firm NCO Financial Systems Inc., which was charged with violating the Texas Debt Collection Act. According to state investigators, NCO unlawfully made harassing and threatening phone calls to purported debtors. Under the settlement, NCO must implement policies that ensure its debt collection efforts fully comply with this law.

NCO Financial Systems, which claims to be the “world’s largest” debt collector, operates call centers in 28 states and eight foreign countries, according to its Web site

“Today’s agreement protects Texans from unlawful debt collection practices,” Attorney General Abbott said. “Texas law prohibits collection agencies from using unlawful threats and coercion to collect debts. With today’s agreement, the world’s largest debt collector agreed to implement safeguards that will protect debtors and ensure full compliance with the law.”

NCO Financial Systems, Inc. handled debt collection for its affiliate, NCO Portfolio Management Inc., which manages credit card, telecommunications, and medical-related debts. According to consumer complaints, NCO Financial Systems representatives made harassing and sometimes profanity-laden telephone calls to Texans, some of whom had never incurred the debt at all. NCO Financial Systems also improperly claimed that certain individuals owed debts when, in fact, the actual debtors had different middle initials or Social Security numbers.

Many Texans also complained that NCO Financial Systems failed to verify that debts were actually owed. Thus, the defendant continued its billing process even after frustrated recipients disputed their bills or sent cease-and-desist letters. NCO Financial Systems also threatened to report debts to credit reporting agencies that were more than seven years old.

The December 5 settlement agreement requires NCO Financial Systems to properly validate the debts that it attempts to collect when appropriately challenged by consumers. Moreover, NCO has agreed to spend $300,000 over the next three years to monitor its collection practices so that it complies with protections offered to consumers by the Texas Debt Collection Act.

To settle the attorney general’s enforcement action, NCO Financial Systems will establish a three-year $150,000 restitution fund to compensate Texans harmed by its unlawful acts. The company will remit $100,000 to the state’s general revenue fund, along with $150,000 in attorneys’ fees.

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U.S. Border Patrol agent Salomón Ruiz of McAllen indicted for bribery and narcotics trafficking

A U.S. Border Patrol (BP) agent has been indicted for allegedly accepting bribes in exchange for escorting narcotic loads, acting United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced on Thursday, December 4.

Salomón Ruiz, 34, of McAllen, was arrested Wednesday, December 3, by the FBI without incident. Ruiz made his initial appearance before United States Magistrate Judge Dorina Ramos in McAllen later that day. He was ordered temporarily detained pending a hearing Monday, December 8, at 9:30 a.m. on the government’s motion to detain him without bond pending trial of the case.

Ruiz is a Border Patrol agent assigned to the Rio Grande Valley sector.

An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence. The defendant is presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law.

The four-count indictment returned under seal by a Houston grand jury on Monday, December 1, was unsealed by the court at Ruiz’s initial appearance.

The first count accuses Ruiz of corruptly demanding, receiving, and accepting approximately $14,000 in bribes to escort a narcotics load in violation of his lawful official duty as a United States BP agent between October 2006 through Sept. 11, 2008.

Ruiz is accused in the second count of the indictment of conspiring with others to possess with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine between June 7, 2008, through September 11, 2008. Counts three and four of the indictment accuse Ruiz of possessing with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine and aiding and abetting the possession with intent to distribute cocaine.

The case will be tried in McAllen.

“Border Patrol agents are entrusted with tremendous authority and the enormous responsibility of securing our nation’s borders, making it a world-class law enforcement agency,” said Ronald D. Vitiello, Chief Patrol Agent, Rio Grande Valley Sector. “Isolated incidents by Border Patrol agents who violate the trust of the citizens they swore to protect will be held accountable.”

A federal conviction for bribery carries a penalty of imprisonment of not more than 15 years and/or a fine not more than three times the monetary equivalent of the bribe. A conviction for conspiring to, aiding and abetting or possessing with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine carries a penalty of imprisonment of not less than 10 years up to life imprisonment and a $4 million fine.

The charges against Ruiz are the result of an investigation conducted by the McAllen Office of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security – Office of Inspector General, Customs and Border Protection Internal Affairs and Customs and Border Protection/U.S. Border Patrol. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Michael Wright of the Public Corruption Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

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Austin cardiologist Fabian Aurignac, formerly of McAllen, indicted for health care fraud

A federal grand jury in McAllen has indicted cardiologist Fabian Aurignac of Austin, formerly of McAllen, for health care fraud, acting United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced on Monday, December 1.

Aurignac was arrested in Austin, where he was to appear before the Texas Medical Board for a hearing regarding the suspension of his medical license. He was scheduled to make his initial appearance before a U.S. Magistrate Judge in Austin later that day.

The case will be prosecuted in McAllen.

An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence. The defendant is presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law.

The eight-count indictment, returned under seal October 21, 2008, and unsealed today following his arrest, accuses Aurignac of defrauding the Medicaid and Medicare health care benefit programs by means of false and fraudulent claims in connection with the use of unlicensed, foreign doctors and medical personal and for billing for medical services not rendered. Aurignac, 45, faces a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000, if convicted.

The investigation leading to the charges in this case was conducted by the FBI and the Texas Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit. Assistant United States Attorney Carolyn Ferko is prosecuting the case.

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UT System’s Interim Chancellor Kenneth I. Shine, M.D., testifies on impact of Hurricane Ike

The following testimony by University of Texas System Interim Chancellor Kenneth I. Shine, M.D., was submitted on Wednesday, December 3, to the joint Texas House Select Committee on Hurricane Ike Destruction and the Texas Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee-Subcommittee on Flooding and Evacuations.

Shine and UT Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB) President David Callender, M.D., testified before the joint committee on the impact of Hurricane Ike and what efforts are underway to mitigte future damages from similar catastrophic weather events. In his testimony, Shine reiterated the UT System’s and the Board of Regents’ committment to and support for UTMB. Copies of both Shine’s and Callender’s testimony are available online.

Testimony of Chancellor ad interim Kenneth I. Shine, M.D.

The University of Texas System

Texas House Select Committee on Hurricane Ike Destruction

Texas Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee-Subcommittee on Flooding and Evacuations

League City, Texas

December 3, 2008

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on behalf of The University of Texas System in regard to the impact of Hurricane Ike on our campuses and the short and long term efforts of the UT System to cope with this catastrophic event and mitigate against future damage.

Looking Back

After Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, which inflicted $166 million of damages on The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, we undertook a reconstruction program which moved to higher floors heavy equipment and the animal colony which had been completely destroyed at Health Science Center Houston.  This required significant reconstruction and strengthening of the facility.  In addition, flood gates that could be closed in the face of potential rising waters were constructed and buildings were reconstructed to be water tight at lower levels.

As a consequence of these efforts, the effect of Hurricane Ike on these two campuses was limited to $23 million at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and $7.41 million at Health Science Center Houston, with much of those losses resulting from business interruption.  M.D. Anderson’s hospital was able to pull up its flood gates and continue to care for 450 patients throughout the disaster.  Power was available through the Texas Medical Center even though power was seriously limited in the remainder of Harris County.

Tropical Storm Allison also taught us lessons about the value of insurance.  Following Allison, hurricane and flood insurance coverage was largely unavailable until approximately one year ago, when the UT System was able to purchase a $100 million policy with a $50 million deductible provision funded by contributions from all our campuses.  We were very fortunate to obtain even this amount of insurance coverage and, given the losses in Hurricane Ike, the availability of similar insurance in the future is uncertain.

Hurricane Ike to Today

Let me emphasize that The University of Texas System and its Regents are firmly and absolutely committed to a vibrant and productive University of Texas Medical Branch campus on Galveston Island.

We have 100 buildings, $160 million in annual research money, the new National Lab, and important educational programs in medicine, nursing, allied health professions and graduate studies.  We are also committed to the presence of a hospital and emergency room on the island, the final size and shape of which is currently being examined.  We hope to restore a Level I Trauma Center at the hospital when facilities such as a blood bank are restored and adequate funding is available.

We are very proud of the efforts of the faculty and staff at UT Medical Branch, who coped with extraordinary conditions during and immediately after Hurricane Ike, during which they sought to preserve as much of the campus as possible.  It is an understatement to say that their efforts were heroic in the face of limited emergency power, loss of potable water, and the inability to use 117 elevators.  The absence of elevators alone greatly complicated the ability to care for the animal colony which was located on upper floors and to which supplies and water had to be delivered regularly.  Among the most devastating damage was that to the first floor of the John Sealy Hospital, where many service areas were destroyed, including the pharmacy, the kitchen, and sterilizing areas.

Under the Systemwide disaster mitigation plan, we were able to engage contractors within 12-18 hours of the disaster.  At the time of my first visit to the campus shortly after the storm there were already over 1000 contract workers on site to restore access to the 60-70 buildings impacted by water and wind.  We were also able to establish computer operations for UT Medical Branch at our UT Arlington computer center so that there was no interruption in payroll payments to employees and clinical appointments for patients receiving care at mainland clinics could be continued.  It is noteworthy that the newly constructed National Laboratory and newer research buildings had been built in a manner to minimize damage and mitigate the effects of the hurricane.  This is an important lesson as we look ahead to long-term mitigation efforts.

The faculty and staff at the campus also deserve the highest praise for their efforts to reopen the 16 bed maternity ward within 30 days of the hurricane and are in the first stages of opening a 200 bed hospital.

In the end, however, Hurricane Ike has had a disastrous impact on The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, producing approximately $400 million in capital losses and $300 million in business interruption costs.  The latter are the result of the loss of revenue from patient care and other services for an extended period of time.  Unfortunately these losses resulted in the painful reduction in force of approximately some 3800 full-time equivalent positions at UTMB.  The reductions took place only after careful program by program assessment of those activities which could be sustained.  The lack of monies to pay salaries due to the absence of patients, coupled with the realities that reopening a larger hospital on Galveston Island, if undertaken, will require several years to accomplish, and can only be done with financial support from a regional or county hospital or health care district, compelled this action in order to assure the ongoing fiscal viability of the remainder of the medical education, research and health care enterprise.

Looking Ahead

I do wish to make some comments regarding the needs of UTMB and the UT System as we look ahead to the upcoming 81st Legislative Session, as well as offer some suggestions with regard to mitigation of the effects of these disasters in the future.  In order to do so, however, I must first briefly review the funding sources available to respond to such a disaster.

For all our campuses, including UTMB, state appropriations for operations are made directly to the campus rather than through UT System administration.  The UT System does not receive from the state and does not maintain a pool of operating monies for the various campuses.

Although The University of Texas System benefits from the Permanent University Fund and the Available University Fund, those funds are limited in how they may be used.  For example, under the Texas Constitution the Available University Fund may only be used for operations at The University of Texas at Austin and for UT System administration.  The Available University Fund cannot be used for operations at any of our other campuses.  Proceeds of Permanent University Fund bonds are available under the constitution for all but two of our campuses, but those proceeds may not be used for business operations, including salaries.  In addition, as the value of the Permanent University Fund has declined in the current economic conditions the Fund’s constitutionally-limited debt capacity for capital expenditures has also declined, making this financing mechanism unavailable.

For these reasons, the UT System’s response to the Hurricane Ike disaster is largely dependent upon cash reserves at the UT Medical Branch and the borrowing capacity of that campus.  Both of these sources of funds are extremely limited and declining.

UTMB does receive payment for the provision of correctional managed care (CMC) services under a contract with the Correctional Managed Health Care Committee, but does not receive any direct State appropriations for this purpose.  UTMB wishes to continue providing these services in the immediate future and is reviewing its ability and the effects on the institution of continuing to provide them for the long term.  No reduction in force has been undertaken in relation to employees in the correctional managed care health program.  A small number of CMC beds have been reopened on the Island and will be expanded in number over the next weeks and months.  The money UTMB receives under the CMC contract may be used only for correctional managed care services and support.

The federal government through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will be another source of funds for reconstruction at UT Medical Branch.  Within days of the hurricane, The University of Texas System and UTMB engaged James Lee Witt Associates to advise us on the roles and responsibilities of FEMA in responding to the disaster.

FEMA is responsible for 100 percent of the acute response costs for up to 45 days and thereafter for 75-90 percent of capital losses.  Under Section 406 of the federal law, FEMA will also consider funding for mitigation against future losses.  However, reimbursement for construction is a painfully slow process.  Each project has to be carefully planned, approved by FEMA, and then largely reimbursed only upon completion.  In the case of Tropical Storm Allison, it was five years before the FEMA reimbursement was fully accomplished, so you can see that going forward arrangements with FEMA will be complex and time-consuming.  And most notably, FEMA does not provide any funds for business interruption losses, which were the driving forces in the need for the reduction in force at UTMB.

Given all these internal and external limitations and conditions, I expect UTMB and the UT System will ask the Legislature in its upcoming session for financial help to cope with the depletion of the cash reserves at UTMB and the expenditures required to meet the costs of recovery.  Cash reserves will be exhausted by February or March and so an emergency appropriation will be critical to sustaining the ongoing operations of UTMB.  And a part of this assistance will need to come in the form of an advance of state funds in order to pay the current and ongoing costs of reconstruction, which would be repaid out of funds received from FEMA as projects are completed, noting that there will undoubtedly be some portion of these capital costs that will not be reimbursed by FEMA and must be borne exclusively by the state.

At the same time, it is essential that repairs take place in a manner that will mitigate against further damage.  For example, the hospital support facilities, including the kitchen, pharmacy, and sterilization areas, must be moved to higher levels to avoid damage in future floods.  This is not only essential to maintain business operations, but FEMA will not reimburse if a structure is damaged a second time in the absence of serious mitigation efforts.  At the same time that the first floors are reconstructed, we must look closely for opportunities to use technology and engineering to help protect other key buildings on the campus.  All of this will be expensive and time consuming.

From the broader and more long-term perspective, it would be useful if State policy-makers give consideration to the establishment or identification of a disaster response fund to provide the ability for institutions such as UTMB, if they confront a major disaster in the future, to proceed expeditiously with reconstruction.  It is also imperative that such funds be available for operating as well as capital purposes, as often it is the business interruption and associated depletion of cash reserves that is the largest loss in such situations.  For example, a portion of the Economic Stabilization or “Rainy Day” Fund — as much as $1 billion — could be set aside for this purpose.  Such an initiative would require careful coordination with FEMA to ensure that projects funded through this mechanism would be FEMA-eligible in order to preserve the ability to be subsequently reimbursed by FEMA.  A body such as the Legislative Budget Board (perhaps with executive approval such as is provided for in budget execution under existing state law) could approve monies for this purpose in incremental amounts, with additional funds made available only as the campus or other agency demonstrates that it is making substantial progress in its planning and execution of reconstruction.  To the extent that FEMA would pay for the costs of mitigation, this would also be paid from this disaster response fund and subsequently reimbursed; but mitigation projects may be so important to the future of an institution or facility that they might be funded in this way without the certainty that such expenditures would be reimbursed.  Providing a secure and stable source for such investment in the long term viability of public facilities would be very valuable for the state’s future.

This proposal would in no way diminish the need, as with UTMB, for state appropriations to help in the response to a disaster, but a well-defined program, with carefully defined criteria and an emphasis on expeditious implementation, might provide a model for accelerated responses to disasters.  Unfortunately, we know with certainty that future disasters will occur.  When they do, having a rapid, responsive, and flexible source of funding would be beneficial.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to comment on behalf of The University of Texas System and for your service to the State as we assess the lessons to be learned from the devastation of Hurricane Ike.  In closing I will reiterate our commitment to a comprehensive research, education, and patient care program at The University of Texas Medical Branch on Galveston Island.  Kurt Salmon Associates, our consultants, will be reporting early next year on the further development of this program and specifically the approaches to the hospital on Galveston Island, as well as options for additional clinical and hospital facilities in Galveston County, that would minimize the likelihood that hurricanes such as Ike would so completely incapacitate our ability to provide patient care.

I will be pleased to respond to any questions.

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