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Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, was recently honored at a special celebration for his support for higher education during a gathering hosted by South Texas College at its Pecan Campus in McAllen. “What many people still don’t understand and I continually say is that here in the Valley you can really get a very solid higher education,” said Hinojosa. “This is a great country we live in. When I graduated college, I had several offers to attend law school and I went to Georgetown University. At first I felt out of place, but what I found is that Valley students can compete anywhere.” Featured, from left: STC Valley Scholars Program students Aurora Castillo and Maribel Bernal; Sen. Hinojosa; and Valley Scholars Ilsse Gracia, Mario Cerda, Karla Martínez and Gabrielle Marroquín. See story later in this posting.

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Newly-elected Edinburg City Councilmember J.R. Betancourt, featured right, takes his oath of office from Hidalgo County 92nd District Court Judge Ricardo Rodriguez, Jr., on Tuesday, May 15, while Betancourt’s wife, Renée Rodríguez-Betancourt, holds the Bible used for the ceremony. Betancourt, an Edinburg native, on Saturday, May 12, was elected to fill the unexpired term of former Mayor Pro Tem Noé Garza, who passed away in early January after battling cancer. Betancourt would be able to seek a full-four year term on the city council when the Place 2 seat is up for election in May 2013.

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With the May 15 swearing-in of its latest member, J.R. Betancourt, featured second from right, the Edinburg City Council is at full strength to continue promoting economic development strategies and legislative policies that have helped Edinburg, according to Forbes magazine, to be part of one of the best medium-size regions in the U.S. for the creation of jobs. In its findings released on May 1, Forbes determined that the McAllen-Edinburg-Pharr-Mission MSA registered a 3.8 percent growth in jobs, and this year’s third-best ranking comes after an equally impressive 2011 showing, when the South Texas MSA was rated 6th among medium-size populations nationwide. Featured, from left: Mayor Pro Tem Gus García, Jr.; Councilmember Elias Longoria, Jr.; Mayor Richard García; Councilmember J.R. Betancourt; and Councilmember Homer Jasso, Jr. See story later in this posting.

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Dr. René Gutiérrez, featured center, the superintendent for the Edinburg school district, on May 8 received the Excellence in Educational Leadership Award from the University Council for Educational Administration. The honor was bestowed upon the superintendent during the regular meeting of the Edinburg school district’s Board of Trustees. Gutiérrez, who has been superintendent since July 2009, has exhibited clear-cut leadership that has met challenging issues head-on and brought about results that have enabled the district to maintain an impeccable record in student achievement, fiscal management, personnel development, transparency, school construction, public relations, crisis management, and parental involvement. Featured participating in the ceremony are, from first row, from left: Dr. Velma Menchaca, a professor with the Department of Educational Leadership at the University of Texas-Pan American; Dr. Gutiérrez; and Dr. Anita Pankake a professor with the Department of Educational Leadership at UT-Pan American. Back row, from left, are: Dr. Alejos Salinas, Jr., a member of the Board of Trustees for South Texas College who also serves as a lecturer with the Department of Educational Leadership at UT-Pan American; and Dr. Francisco Guajardo, an associate professor with the Department of Educational Leadership at UT-Pan American.

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The McAllen Chamber of Commerce Top 25 Committee on Wednesday, May 22, hosted their 28th Annual Top 25 Banquet that honored the top 25 academically performing graduates of McAllen High School, McAllen Memorial High School, and Nikki Rowe High Schools, plus the Top 4 Achieve Early College High School Students. Each student was awarded a $1,000  scholarship. “We were very excited to sponsor the Top 25 Banquet for another year,” said Luis Cantú, Vice President of Community Development for the McAllen Chamber of Commerce. “Being able to raise the money to provide these McAllen school district students with a scholarship is always very pleasing.” Top 25 Committee members are featured, seated from left: Yajaira Villarreal; Cynthia Olivarez; Maryiel García; and Isela Herrera; and standing, from left: Luis Cantú; and Antonio Rosales, committee chairman. See story later in this posting.
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Southwest Airlines, located at the Rio Grande Valley International Airport in Harlingen, has become the latest partner for the Rio Grande Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.  “It gives us great pleasure to be able to call Southwest Airlines our corporate partner”, said Cynthia M. Sakulenzki, president and CEO of the McAllen-based chamber. “Southwest Airlines recognizes that their customers come from all over the Valley.”  There are several events that the Rio Grande Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has scheduled which will require a combined partnership with Southwest Airlines to accommodate convention guests and state meetings scheduled in the Valley. Featured, from left: Christina Rivers, Southwest Airlines customer service agent; Becky Kirkpatrick, Southwest Airlines customer service agent; Mario Garza, Southwest Airlines station manager; Lily Colón, Southwest Airlines customer service supervisor; and Cynthia M. Sakulenzki, president and CEO of the Rio Grande Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
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Yolanda Villescas of Edinburg, featured first row, center, on Tuesday, May 15, was honored by the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court with a resolution recognizing her retirement and 34 years of public service with the county government. Villescas’ impressive career with Hidalgo County began as a tax clerk in 1976, then saw her advance through the system until she attained the high-ranking level of tax collection manager for the Hidalgo County Tax Office. Featured, front row, from left: Son-in-law Agustín Hernández, Jr.; daughter Bianca Hernández; husband Xavier Villescas; Yolanda Villescas; Hidalgo County Tax Assessor-Collector Armando Barrera; and son Jaime Villescas. Back row, from left: Precinct 4 County Commissioner Joseph Palacios; Precint 3 County Commissioner Joe M. Flores; Hidalgo County Judge Ramón García; Precinct 2 County Commissioner Héctor “Tito” Palacios; and Precinct 1 County Commissioner Joel Quintanilla.

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Mónica Pérez, featured front row, second from left, who is a fifth grade teacher at Esparza Elementary, and G. Marivel Vela-De la Rosa, front row, second from right, who is a middle school teacher at Brewster School, were named Secondary and Elementary Teachers of the Year for Edinburg at the recent District Teacher of the Year Banquet. The pair was selected from a list of seven finalists narrowed down by a committee composed of community members, business persons, and educators. Both Vela-De la Rosa and Pérez received a recognition plaque and a $1,200 check from the Edinburg Teachers Credit Union, plus they were surprised the next day with a beautiful bouquet of flowers. As Secondary and Elementary Teachers of the Year, Vela-De la Rosa and Pérez will be the keynote speakers at the 2012-2013 General Assembly for Edinburg school district. A total of 41 elementary and secondary teachers were also recognized at the District Teacher of the Year Banquet with a recognition plaque and a $200 check. Featured, front row, from left: Carmen González, president of the Edinburg school board; Mónica Pérez, Elementary Teacher of the Year; G. Marivel Vela-De la Rosa, Secondary Teacher of the Year; and Juan “Sonny” Palacios, vice president of the Edinburg school board. Standing, from left: David Torres, member of the Edinburg school board; Dr. René Gutiérrez, Superintendent of Schools; and Robert Peña Jr., member of the Edinburg school board.

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On Wednesday, May 9, Bob Vackar, owner of Bert Ogden Dealer Group, featured fifth from left, and Robert Lucio, general manager for Bert Ogden Dealer Group, featured fifth from right, provided leaders with the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation and the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce with highlights of the economic impact generated by the homegrown company, and explained how that data is used to benefit the entire city. Their presentation was held at the company’s latest addition, Volvo of Edinburg, located at 4421 South Business 281. The two men were the distinguished speakers for the chamber’s Power Punch @ Lunch business mixer provided for its members. With more than $200 million in sales revenue generated in 2011 by Bert Ogden Dealer Group’s vehicle franchises in Edinburg, even much larger cities would be happy to be the hometown to such an economic success story. Featured, from left: Johnny Rodríguez, former chairman of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors; Flo Prater, an ambassador for the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce; Jaime A. Rodríguez, a member of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation Board of Directors; Will McCullough; Bob Vackar, owner of Bert Ogden Dealer Group; Robert Lucio, general manager for Bert Ogden Dealer Group; Letty González, president of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce; Edna Peña, chairman of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors; and Maggie Kent and Marty Martin, members of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. See lead story in this posting.

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Bert Ogden Dealer Group’s local franchises helping drive economy, future of Edinburg

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

With more than $200 million in sales revenue generated in 2011 by Bert Ogden Dealer Group’s vehicle franchises in Edinburg, even much larger cities would be happy to be the hometown to such an economic success story.

But for Bob and Janet Vackar, owners of Bert Ogden Dealer Group’s 18 franchises in Hidalgo County and Cameron County, these latest local sales figures tell an equally important story that helps them – along with the Edinburg City Council, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, and the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce – to recruit more businesses and jobs to the city.

The Edinburg Economic Development Corporation is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

On Wednesday, May 9, Bob Vackar, along with Robert Lucio, general manager for Bert Ogden Dealer Group, provided leaders with the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation and the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce with highlights of the economic impact generated by the homegrown successful enterprise, and explained how that data is used to benefit the entire city.

Their presentation was held at the company’s latest addition, Volvo of Edinburg, located at 4421 South Business 281. The two men were the distinguished speakers for the chamber’s Power Punch @ Lunch business mixer that it provides for its members.

“Bert Ogden established his first dealership in Edinburg in 1970,” Lucio recalled the efforts of the company’s namesake. “We have grown from that one dealership to its current 18 franchises, seven of which are located in Edinburg.”

Bert and his wife Dorothy both saw the fruits of their labor, as well as their community service, prosper after their first landmark business achievement more than 40 years ago, and has become part of the Ogden family legacy. After Mr. and Mrs. Ogden passed away, their daughter Janet and son-in-law Bob took over the firm. Since then, the Vackars have helped guarantee the Ogdens’ vision for transforming their family business into one of the premier vehicle dealerships in Texas.

Bert Ogden franchises’ successes help fund key local public services

Last year’s $200+ million sales revenue represented income generated by the Edinburg dealerships from the vehicles and auto parts sold as well as from maintenance and repair services provided, Lucio said.

But the Edinburg dealerships’ impact is not limited to just the sales of their products and services.

Between 2010 and 2012, the Edinburg-based franchises have generated more than $707,000 in property taxes for local governments, including the Edinburg school district, the Edinburg city government, and the Hidalgo County government. Property taxes paid to the city government during those three years are expected to reach almost $165,000, he said. Also, a tax is levied on all retail sales of motor vehicles in Texas – money that goes to help pay for state government services.

In addition, the Edinburg sites also employ more than 225 people – with job vacancies still being advertised.

“Many of the employees of Bert Ogden in Edinburg also live in Edinburg, so a great portion of the money paid in payroll stays in this city,” said Lucio, who announced he had just recently moved to Edinburg.

But those impressive figures are used to bring valuable positive attention far beyond the city limits.

The sales of vehicles in Texas are public records maintained by the state government, and that information is easily accessible to anyone, including business leaders looking for new areas in which to expand or locate, Vackar explained.

Such information is a powerful tool to recruit new businesses to Edinburg, he noted.

Vehicle sales strong economic barometer

“If you look at disposable income (money available to spend after paying taxes), the two big-ticket items people buy are their home or their car. When you see that number of cars sold in Edinburg, you know that there is disposable income,” Vackar said. “When you look at the entire Valley market and economy, we show them the numbers of vehicles being sold.”

Throughout Hidalgo County and Cameron County, Bert Ogden Dealer Group dealerships sell about 1,500 vehicles a month, including 500 vehicles a month at the Edinburg locations, he said. By May 2013, he predicts the firm’s 18 dealerships would be selling about 2,000 vehicles a month.

“You would be surprised at the number of businesses that are thinking about relocating to Edinburg. They pull the vehicle registration reports kept by the State of Texas to see where automobiles are being sold,” he reported. “They ask, ‘What is going on down here?’ People are looking at such economic indicators.”

Jaime A. Rodríguez, a member of the EEDC Board of Directors who attended the May 9 presentation, confirmed that vehicle registration and housing figures are among the key elements used by EEDC and city leaders in their successful efforts to bring new businesses to Edinburg.

“People look at how many automobiles are being sold here, how many homes are being built, and they all have a synergy (combined effort) effect,” Rodríguez said. “They look at how many vehicles are being sold and what types of vehicles, which indicate income levels, and that also helps us out.”

He praised the Vackars for the leadership roles they played in other aspects of the city’s economic growth, noting that the Bert Ogden Dealer Group sold 58 acres to First Hartford Realty Corporation, which allowed the Manchester, Connecticut-based developer to build what is now The Shoppes at Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg.

Rodriguez: Edinburg “is the place to be.”

Rodríguez also noted that the Bert Ogden Dealer Group in Edinburg offers an impressive range of vehicles and brands – Buick, Chevrolet, GMC, Infiniti, Mazda, Subaru, and Volvo – which makes it attractive for consumers from throughout South Texas to come to Edinburg.

“This is the place to be, where we have a diverse dealership group so people can have a one-stop convenience, and while they are here, they can shop and dine elsewhere in Edinburg,” Rodríguez said. “Customers don’t have to go to other cities, we have it all here.”

The Power Punch @ Lunch was established as a quarterly luncheon to feature sponsors for the events, which are designed to bring members and the community to network and promote one another,” said Letty González, president of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce.

“The Edinburg Chamber of Commerce has fostered a great relationship with the Bert Ogden Dealer Group thanks to Johnny Rodríguez (a former chairman of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors) and Robert Lucio,” added González.

“The Bert Ogden Dealer Group is a strong community leader as they employ many local citizens, their tax revenues come back to the city of Edinburg, and they also contribute to a variety of charitable organizations,” she continued. “The Edinburg Chamber of Commerce appreciates their commitment, dedication and generosity. They are a strong supporter of the chamber.”

The Edinburg Economic Development Corporation is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council. It’s five-member governing board, which is appointed by the Edinburg City Council, includes Mayor Richard García as President, Dr. Glenn Martínez as Vice-President, Fred Palacios as Secretary-Treasurer, Felipe García and Jaime A. Rodríguez. For more information on the EEDC and the City of Edinburg, please log on tohttp://www.EdbgCityLimits.com

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McAllen-Edinburg-Pharr-Mission ranked 3rd best in nation by Forbes for job creation and future prospects

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

The McAllen-Edinburg-Pharr-Mission population center, known as a metropolitan statistical area (MSA), has been selected by Forbes magazine as the third-best medium-size region in the U.S. for jobs, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation has announced.

The EEDC is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

In its findings released on May 1, Forbes determined that the McAllen-Edinburg-Pharr-Mission MSA registered a 3.8 percent growth in jobs, and this year’s third-best ranking comes after an equally impressive 2011 showing, when the South Texas MSA was rated 6th among medium-size populations nationwide.

For the purpose of its report, Forbes stated that medium size MSAs were population regions that have employment rolls between 150,000 and 450,000.

The McAllen-Edinburg-Pharr-Mission region was one of 91 medium-size MSAs nationwide analyzed by Forbes. The McAllen-Edinburg-Pharr-Mission MSA represents all residents in Hidalgo County.

In general, a MSA is defined by the federal government as a geographical region, such as a county, which has a large population nucleus (core) and surrounding smaller communities that have a high degree of social and economic integration with that core.

In its advisory to readers, Forbes explained that it “sought to measure the robustness of a region’s growth both recently and over time.

“We looked at all of the MSAs for which the (U.S.) Bureau of Labor Statistics reports monthly employment data,” wrote Joel Kotkin, a contributor for the Forbes article. “They are derived from three-month rolling averages of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ‘state and area’ unadjusted employment data reported from November 2000 to January 2012.”

On an individual basis, going back to 2005, Edinburg also showed very positive gains in the number of jobs in the community.

According to the Texas Workforce Commission, beginning in 2005, the City of Edinburg has seen a more than 25 (twenty five) percent increase in the number of jobs between 2005 and 2011.

The Texas Workforce Commission is a state agency that compiles the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly reports.

Mayor Richard García, who also serves as president of the EEDC Board of Directors, said Edinburg plays pivotal roles in helping the region and South Texas continue to influence job creation and economic development.

“The foundation of any city or region is often based on the availability of an outstanding system of learning,” said García. “One of the many strengths and blessings of Edinburg is that in our community, every age group has access to an education that is second-to-none, from preschool to PhDs.”

Nelda T. Ramírez, the Executive Director for the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, said Edinburg’s economic well-being is the result of hard work and innovation of its citizens and thoughtful, proven planning by the city’s elected and administrative leadership.

“In addition to the invaluable roles of our education systems, Edinburg’s successes are also shaped by our designation as the county seat, which brings thousands of area residents every week into our economy, and by the city government’s pro-business and economic development strategies, which held retain, create, and attract jobs to our region,” Ramírez noted.

Other factors which lead to job growth in Edinburg are the continuing transformation of U.S. Expressway 281, which shuttles thousands of vehicles daily through the city, into a federal interstate-quality transportation network, and the presence of a cutting-edge medical corridor that features state-of-the-art hospitals and medical centers with thousands of highly-skilled employees, the mayor added.

Because of substantial methodology changes between 2004 and 2005 in estimating employment statistics for individual cities, the Texas Workforce Commission does not provide employment data prior to 2005, according to the agency’s website, which is available at:

http://www.tracer2.com/cgi/dataanalysis/AreaSelection.asp?tableName=Labforce

According to the Texas Workforce Commission, the average number of jobs in Edinburg per year were:

• 2005: 25,497;
• 2006: 26,791;
• 2007: 28,057;
• 2008: 29,468;
• 2009: 29,851;
• 2010: 31,105; and
• 2011: 31, 903.

According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Forbes is an American business magazine owned by Forbes, Inc. Published biweekly, it features original articles on finance, industry, investing, and marketing topics. Forbes also reports on related subjects such as technology, communications, science, and law. Headquarters are in New York City. Its primary competitors in the national business magazine category are Fortune, which is also published biweekly, and Businessweek, which recently was sold to Bloomberg.

Forbes is well known for its lists, including its lists of the richest Americans (the Forbes 400) and its list of billionaires. The motto of Forbes magazine is “The Capitalist Tool.” Its editor-in-chief is Steve Forbes.

The Edinburg Economic Development Corporation is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council. It’s five-member governing board, which is appointed by the Edinburg City Council, includes Mayor Richard García as President, Dr. Glenn Martínez as Vice-President, Fred Palacios as Secretary-Treasurer, Felipe García, and Jaime A. Rodríguez. For more information on the EEDC and the City of Edinburg, please log on to: http://www.EdbgCityLimits.com

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Key section of West Owassa Road leading to U.S. Expressway 281 to be expanded under agreement by Edinburg, Pharr, Hidalgo County

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

A vital expansion of West Owassa Road between South Jackson Road and the U.S. Expressway 281 frontage road is one step closer to reality following a Tuesday, May 1 decision by the Edinburg City Council to participate in local share-costing of a planned $4.2 million roadway improvement – primarily funded by the state – that will help promote economic development and public safety in southwest Edinburg and northwest Pharr.

From South Jackson Road to the U.S. Expressway 281 frontage road, West Owassa Road is primarily a two-lane street that connects portions of Edinburg and Pharr, eventually leading to northeast McAllen, to one of the Valley’s major state highways.

Several major businesses in Edinburg, including CTC Distributing, Ltd., with its warehousing component, and other local businesses currently depend on the undersized roadway. The large and popular Texas Trails RV Resort is the featured business in Pharr that also currently must make do with the restrictive two-lane street.

But under the planned expansion – scheduled to begin in late 2013 or 2014 – that segment of West Owassa Road would be significantly reconstructed and improved to a four-lane roadway with a center turning lane.

Once the project is completed, all of West Owassa Road from the U.S. Expressway 281 frontage road to South McColl Road in Edinburg would be a four-lane roadway with a center turning lane.

Also under the interlocal agreement, the cities of Edinburg and Pharr, along with Hidalgo County Precinct 2 and Hidalgo County Precinct 4, would improve and install about 11,520 feet of roadway drainage as part of the project.

Mayor Richard García, who also serves as president of the Board of Directors for the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, praised the project as an excellent example of local governments working together for the common good.

The Edinburg Economic Development Corporation is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

He noted Jackson Road and Sugar Road – which link Pharr and Edinburg – also would be helped by the designated improvements.

“The planned expansion of West Owassa Road will make it another important artery that will provide relief to this important region of our city,” García said. “It will help Jackson, Sugar and Trenton roads better handle the high volume of traffic generated by the businesses, medical offices, and hospitals in the area.”

The city council approved participating in the local cost-sharing proposal after reviewing the recommendation by Acting City Manager Shawn Snider.

Snider said Edinburg’s contribution would not have to be made until the city’s new budget year begins on October 1, and he was hopeful that Edinburg would be able to qualify for a separate grant to help reduce its local share.

“There is a benefit to all of the entities involved,” Snider told the city council. “This will enable the road to add a major corridor improvement in the southwest side of our city.”

The Texas Department of Transportation, through a state grant being funneled through the Hidalgo County Metropolitan Planning Organization, has pledged to pay for 80 percent of the estimated cost, Snider explained.

The cities of Edinburg and Pharr, along with Hidalgo County Precinct 2 and Hidalgo County Precinct 4, will be evenly sharing the remaining 20 percent of the project’s costs – or about $213,000 each – plus each local entity also would be responsible for an additional one-fourth share of any cost overruns for the roadway improvements, Snider added.

Among the key elements of the interlocal agreement, Edinburg and the two county commission precinct offices will provide assistance, as needed, to help Pharr with some of the responsibilities of the project, including the following elements:

• Pharr will undertake the acquisition of rights-of-way for streets and road drainage for the project, including but not limited to, title reports, appraisals, acquisitions of right-of-way, and condemnation of rights-of way that cannot be acquired by agreement of the landowner;

• Pharr agrees to identify the parcels needed for right-of-way and negotiate with parcel owners to acquire such right-of-way. Edinburg, Hidalgo County Precinct 2, and Hidalgo County Precinct 4 will assist as necessary; and

• Pharr will retain and contract with competent engineering firm(s) to prepare all engineering design for construction, environmental documents, and right-of-way plans, maps, and appraisals as necessary for completion of the project.

The Edinburg Economic Development Corporation is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council. It’s five-member governing board, which is appointed by the Edinburg City Council, includes Mayor Richard García as President, Dr. Glenn Martínez as Vice-President, Fred Palacios as Secretary-Treasurer, Felipe García, and Jaime A. Rodríguez. For more information on the EEDC and the City of Edinburg, please log on tohttp://www.EdbgCityLimits.com

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South Texas College salutes Sen. Hinojosa for dedication to higher education for the Valley

By HELEN J. ESCOBAR

South Texas College students, staff and administrators recently held a special celebration to salute the hard work and dedication to higher education by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

During the event, STC President Shirley A. Reed highlighted some of the senator’s accomplishments, which have helped STC continue to grow and expand to meet the needs of the communities it serves.

“The senator supported the selection of STC as one of three community colleges to pilot offering the Bachelor of Applied Technology degree, which provides affordable access to a bachelor’s degree for students in our service area,” she explained. “Without his support, the hundreds of Valley resident that have graduated with bachelor’s degrees from our program would not have the same quality of life they currently have today.”

Hinojosa also secured state appropriations funding for STC and was a vocal advocate for restoring funding for public education while serving on the Senate Finance Committee

“He supported the early college high school model and now STC is the higher ed partner with nine early college high schools across Hidalgo County, a figure which is expected to increase to 15 by next fall,” she continued. “Because of these ECHS, thousands of students will have the opportunity to earn college credit while in high school and many of them will earn associate degrees. They will have an unprecedented opportunity to save money and accelerate their futures. All in all, it is easy to see that his enduring support has allowed us to continue our open access service mission of offering a quality education at an affordable price. We are deeply grateful.”

Hinojosa also had the chance to meet and hear from STC students that have benefitted from his work to continue funding higher education.

“As an STC Valley Scholars Program student, I know it’s a privilege to be part of the program because without it I would be more focused on paying my tuition than studying,” said Gabrielle Marroquín in her address to Hinojosa. “STC gave me the opportunity to get a great education and save money for my future. I am very grateful for everyone who supports the college because without that support, we students wouldn’t be where we are today, so thank you.”

During the event, Hinojosa discussed his own personal trials as an immigrant field worker who endured the horrors of the Vietnam War. After his return from the battlefield, he took advantage of the benefits of higher education to ensure he created new and better opportunities for his own life, a lesson that has deeply influenced his continued support of creating and enhancing higher education opportunities in the region he serves.

“What many people still don’t understand and I continually say is that here in the Valley you can really get a very solid higher education,” said Hinojosa. “This is a great country we live in. When I graduated college, I had several offers to attend law school and I went to Georgetown University. At first I felt out of place, but what I found is that Valley students can compete anywhere.

“Our educational system is our future and we can never stop investing in it. STC is the key to creating jobs because you can respond very quickly to workforce needs. A degree will always give you a better opportunity and it is important for us to invest in education,” he added. “I understand this and how important it is for our future. I will always support education.”

Hinojosa has served more than 30 years in elected positions in the Texas House and Senate. He was recently named the 2012 Border Texan of the Year. For additional information about him visithttp://www.hinojosa.senate.state.tx.us/. For additional information about South Texas College visithttp://www.southtexascollege.edu.

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County District Attorney Armando Villalobos, who is campaigning for Congress, is charged bribery and extortion scheme

U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman, head of the Office of the U.S. Attorney’s Western Division in San Antonio, and FBI Special Agent in Charge Armando Fernández on Monday, May 7, announced the arrests of and a federal grand jury indictment charging Cameron County and District Attorney Armando Villalobos and attorney Eduardo “Eddie” Lucio in connection with a bribery and extortion scheme.

An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence.

A defendant is presumed innocent unless convicted through due process of law.

Villalobos and Lucio both contend they are innocent of the charges.

Villalobos is also a Democratic Party candidate for newly-created Congressional District 34, which is anchored in Brownsville.

As of Wednesday, May 23, Villalobos had maintained his decision to continue to seek the congressional seat and to remain as county attorney and district attorney for Cameron County.

Although he shares a similar name, Eduardo “Eddie” Lucio is not Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, or the senator’s son, Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito.

The 12-count indictment, returned on the morning of Monday, May 7, by a federal grand jury in Brownsville, charges the defendants with one count of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act and one count of conspiracy to violate the RICO Act. In addition, Villalobos is charged with seven counts of extortion and three counts of honest services fraud; Lucio, three counts of extortion and two counts of honest services fraud.

According to the indictment, from October 2, 2006 through May 3, 2012, the defendants were involved in a scheme to illegally generate income for themselves and others through a pattern of bribery and extortion, favoritism, improper influence, personal self-enrichment, self-dealing, concealment, and conflict of interest.

The indictment alleges that Villalobos solicited and accepted over $100,000 in bribes and kickbacks in the form of cash and campaign contributions from Lucio and others in return for favorable acts of prosecutorial discretion, including minimizing charging decisions, pre-trial diversion agreements, agreements on probationary matters, and case dismissals.

The indictment also alleges that Villalobos solicited and arranged for private counsel, including Lucio, to handle civil and forfeiture matters associated with criminal matters pending in the Office of the District and County Attorney of Cameron County. The indictment further alleges that while serving as County and District Attorney for Cameron County, Villalobos used his executive authority as well as County property and employees to further the illicit affairs of the criminal enterprise.

If convicted, Villalobos and Lucio face up to 20 years in federal prison per count.

This case is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation, and the Brownsville Police Department. Southern District of Texas Assistant United States Attorney Michael Wynne and Western District of Texas Assistant United States Attorney Greg Surovic are prosecuting this case on behalf of the government.

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U.S. government indicts Mexican operators of “Welcome to Hell” stash house in Edinburg

By ANGELA DODGE

Vicente Ortiz-Soto and Marcial Salas-Garduño, both 23 and Mexican nationals, on Tuesday, May 15, were indicted on charges of conspiracy to harbor undocumented immigrants and harboring undocumented immigrants, United States Attorney Kenneth Magidson announced.

An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence.

A defendant is presumed innocent unless convicted through due process of law.

The indictment alleges local law enforcement officers working alongside federal authorities were sent to a residence in Edinburg on May 2, 2012, after a 911 caller indicated he was being held against his will in a stash house for undocumented immigrants.

Upon arrival at the scene, according to the indictment, authorities discovered more than 100 undocumented immigrants of various countries of origin located in three separate buildings on the property.

One building was chain-locked and several undocumented immigrants who were locked inside the building were later treated for injuries. Statements taken from the undocumented immigrants indicated they were allegedly threatened by Salas-Garduño that they would be beaten or killed if they did not remain quiet.

Additionally, witnesses indicated Salas-Garduño stated “Welcome to Hell” when undocumented immigrants arrived at the residence.

Ortiz-Soto and Salas-Garduño were arrested on May 2 following the filing of a criminal complaint and will remain in federal custody without bond per court order pending trial. A date for their arraignment on the formal charges alleged in the indictment will be set by the court in the near future.

If convicted, Ortiz-Soto and Salas-Garduño face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on each count.

This case is being investigated by ICE-Homeland Security Investigations. Assistant U.S. Attorney Cory J. H. Crenshaw is prosecuting the case.

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Voter Empowerment Act would modernize nation’s voter registration system, reduce intimidation, says Congressman Hinojosa

By PATRICIA GUILLERMO

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, along with other House Democrats on Thursday, May 17, introduced the Voter Empowerment Act, which is comprehensive voting rights legislation to modernize the nation’s voter registration system, ensure equal access to the ballot box for all Americans and prohibit voter caging and other deceptive practices that keep people from exercising their constitutional right to vote.

“The right to vote is one of the most important aspects of our Democracy and our voters should be able to exercise that right through laws that help the process not diminish it and that is why I co-sponsored this important legislation,” said Hinojosa.

The bill would protect voters from restrictive voting measures that have been enacted in states across the country over the last year. Those state measures make it harder for millions of eligible voters to register or vote, and disproportionally affect military service members, the disabled, minorities, young people, seniors, and low-income Americans.

However, access to registration and to the ballot remains a problem:

Around three million Americans were turned away from the polls in the 2008 presidential election due to voter registration problems, said Hinojosa.

One in four voters – an estimated 51 million Americans eligible to vote – are not registered.

Since 2008 nationwide, the number of Latinos registered to vote decreased by five percent.

The Department of Defense Inspector General has repeatedly noted a persistent failure of the Federal Voting Assistance Program to provide effective assistance to military voters, specifically identifying a lack of voter awareness of existing resources to assist in the process.

In 2009, a majority of polling places still had one or more impediments that could prevent an individual with a disability from casting their ballot.

But instead of making it easier to register and vote, state legislatures across the country have made deliberate and systematic attempts to roll back access to the ballot, including laws that:

• Make voter registration more difficult for eligible voters.

At least 16 states have introduced bills to end Election Day and same-day voter registration and reduce other registration opportunities. Florida, Illinois, and Texas passed laws restricting voter registration drives. Ohio ended its weeklong period of same-day registration.

• Reduce early and absentee voting:

At least nine states introduced bills to reduce their early voting periods, and Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia enacted those bills. Four states introduced bills to reduce absentee voting opportunities.

According to Hinojosa, the proposed Voter Empowerment Act would help “open access to the ballot box” by modernizing the voter registration system, authorizing an online registration option, authorizing same-day registration, and permitting voters to update their registration data onsite.

The measure, he contended, also would provide additional tools to alleviate any additional burdens for people will disabilities, and require all universities which receive federal funds to offer and encourage voter registration to their students.

In addition, the legislative would simplify registration for all military personnel serving oversees, and ensure that their ballots are counted.

Other provisions of the proposed Voter Empowerment Act, Hinojosa said,  would help ensure integrity of the process by:

• Authorizing funds for training poll workers and setting standards for polling place practices;
• Requiring provisional ballots be available and counted at all polling places;
• Prohibiting voter caging and designating it as a felony; and
• Protecting against deceptive practices and intimidation.

The legislation, if it became law, also would further protect accountability by:

• Establishing a national voter hotline to ensure timely reporting and corrective action of voting related issues;
• Setting standards for voting machines to ensure accurate tabulation and confirmation of voter intent paper copy verification; and
• Reauthorizing the Election Assistance Commission to ensure that the highest standards are being met nationwide to guarantee fair elections

“Texas is no stranger to deceptive voting practices and this is why in our region and all over the United States we should have good comprehensive protection as well as accessibility to exercise our right to vote,” Hinojosa further contended.

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Congressman Cuellar, 14 other Texas lawmakers, request U.S. surplus military equipment be used to protect Texas border

By DANIELLA MARTÍNEZ

Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, on Thursday, May 17, sent a letter to Department of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in support of the Texas Department of Public Safety’s request for the procurement of excess equipment from the Department of Defense (DoD).  The letter was signed by 14 of Cuellar’s colleagues in the Texas congressional delegation.

“With the drawdown in Iraq complete and most of the Operation New Dawn equipment in Afghanistan retrograded to the United States, it is inevitable that a large amount of excess equipment will continue to amass,” the letter stated. “The purpose of our letter is to underscore the continuing need in Texas for more of this equipment, as the TX DPS exerts considerable efforts in providing for the safety and security of the communities that are located along approximately 64 percent of the entire international land border between the U.S. and Mexico.”

More than 1.5 million pieces of equipment have already been shipped out of Iraq over the last year and nearly 900,000 remain. Much of this equipment would be useful to the federal, state and local law enforcement in their efforts to secure the border with Mexico.

“We know there is surplus equipment, and we know there is a law enforcement need.  I will continue working to connect the dots between the two to ensure that we are sending this equipment where it is most useful in keeping our border secure,” said Cuellar.  “I am grateful to be joined by fourteen of my colleagues in the Texas congressional delegation in this goal of reinforcing collaboration with Secretary Panetta to make sure that local law enforcement agencies take full advantage of this opportunity to get their hands on the tools they need in a fiscally responsible way.”

The May 17 letter to Panetta was also signed by Congressman Joe Barton, R-Ennis; Congressman Francisco “Quico” Canseco, R-San Antonio; Congressman Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi; Congressman Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler; Congressman Al Green, D-Houston; Congressman Gene Green, D-Houston; Congressman Ralph Hall, R-Rockwall; Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas; Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston; Congressman Michael McCaul, R-Austin; Congressman Ted Poe, R-Kingwood/Beaumont; Congressman Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land; Congressman Pete Sessions, D-Dallas; and Congressman Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio.

The May 17 correspondence follows a letter that Cuellar and Poe, joined by 17 border sheriffs from Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, sent to Panetta earlier this year requesting that Panetta deploy surplus military equipment returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to the nation’s southern border with Mexico.

“Texas DPS Director Steven McCraw has demonstrated admirable leadership and vision in keeping Texans safe and seeking to better DPS’ capabilities,” said Cuellar. “I look forward to helping him continue the conversation with DoD as he works to get the equipment the Texas Department of Public Safety needs to keep our border strong and our communities secure.”

Cuellar, the Ranking Member of the Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, is leading the charge to have surplus DoD equipment sent to the Texas-Mexico border where it can be leveraged to support local law enforcement needs.  In February, Cuellar hosted Defense Department Assistant Secretary Paul N. Stockton and South Texas first responders at Laredo Community College to discuss the DoD Domestic Preparedness Support Initiative, which coordinates the Department’s efforts to transfer technology, items and equipment to federal, state and local first responders.

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McAllen’s Top 25 high school graduates honored by McAllen Chamber of Commerce

The McAllen Chamber of Commerce Top 25 Committee on Wednesday, May 22, hosted their 28th Annual Top 25 Banquet that honored the top 25 academically performing graduates of McAllen High School, McAllen Memorial High School, and Nikki Rowe High Schools, plus the Top 4 Achieve Early College High School Students.

Each student was awarded a $1,000  scholarship.

“We were very excited to sponsor the Top 25 Banquet for another year,” said Luis Cantú, Vice President of Community Development for the local chamber. “Being able to raise the money to provide these McAllen school district students with a scholarship is always very pleasing.”

He added that for 2012, the McAllen Chamber of Commerce was able to reach its goal for the scholarship program “thanks to the proceeds from the McAllen Mayor’s Cup Golf Tournament, the Santa Fe Wine Classic, the Chamber’s Presidents’ Cup Golf Tournament, the McAllen Child Study Club, and through the generous contributions of several community and business leaders.”

He explained that the Top 25 scholarship program is a way to acknowledge the top 25 best academically performing students from each of the three McAllen high schools.

“Anyone in our community can make a contribution towards the Top 25 Scholarship Program. It is an investment in McAllen’s future and a great way to motivate students to take the next step and go to college; hopefully, when these students complete their college education they remember McAllen as their home and return to make a difference in this community,” Cantú added.

The Top 25 Banquet was held on Wednesday evening, May 23, from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Valencia Events Center, 3012 S. Jackson Road in McAllen.

Individuals interested in supporting the Top 25 program may contact Cantú at the McAllen Chamber of Commerce at(956) 682-2871, or by visiting the chamber, located at 1200 Ash Avenue in McAllen.

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UT System regents authorize next steps for medical schools Rio Grande Valley and Austin

By ANTHONY P. DE BRUYN

The University of Texas System Board of Regents on Thursday, May 3, authorized UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., to move forward with plans to establish medical schools in Austin and South Texas.

The action by the board affirms Cigarroa’s goal of expanding medical education and research programs in the two regions as outlined in his Framework for Advancing Excellence Across the UT System.

“This is a great day for Texas and The University of Texas System,” Cigarroa said. “These two new schools and related residency programs will have their own unique features, and their respective paths, but together they will each fulfill the need for advancing medical training, developing a health care workforce in rapidly growing areas of the state that have substantial physician and health professional shortages, increasing biomedical research, and improving health care for Central Texas, South Texas, and the Rio Grande Valley,” he said.

“The medical schools will also lead to the commercialization of discoveries made by their researchers and significantly strengthen the economic vibrancy of their local communities and regions, while more importantly bringing these life-saving discoveries to the patient’s bedside.” Cigarroa added.

“The board’s action today shows our enthusiastic support for the establishment of medical education and health care in the state,” Regents’ Chairman Gene Powell said. “The new medical schools in South Texas and at The University of Texas at Austin will provide more physicians and health care providers and will offer additional opportunities for comprehensive treatment options for these important regions of our great state. In addition, the medical schools will provide substantial increased levels of cutting-edge medical and health care research in South Texas and Austin.”

The board publicly and explicitly acknowledged its commitment to the development of a medical school in South Texas, contingent upon the following factors:

• Current state funding for the Regional Academic Health Center as part of the UT Health Science Center – San Antonio must continue and increase, with that funding eventually shifting to directly support the new medical school;

• Successful residency programs must be established across Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy counties, and farther up the Rio Grande into Webb County, to support education and training for a medical school; and

• In the absence of discretionary funds under the control of the Board of Regents, operating funds for a medical school in South Texas must be provided from local communities and the region – along with the additional state funds – so that there will be adequate funding to sustain the ongoing operations of the school of medicine.

“For the past 15 years, we have been working diligently to lay a solid foundation for a medical school in South Texas,” Cigarroa said. “This is a house built on rock. The Board of Regents, the UT System, and our elected leaders in that region, including State Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., are committed to this initiative. We have had outstanding conversations this past year with legislators and representatives from corporations, foundations and business in the Valley who support medical education in their region.”

In his remarks to the board, Cigarroa expressed several compelling reasons why UT Austin is well prepared to establish a medical school, and why in turn it will bolster the university’s national reputation, augment breakthrough biomedical research, and enhance health care for the people of Central Texas and the world.

The vast majority of the top medical schools in the U.S. are associated with a large university, and research expenditures generated from universities with medical schools are significantly higher than those of universities without medical schools. The establishment of a medical school at UT Austin will further strengthen the comprehensive research university’s competitive position among America’s finest public universities.

Cigarroa said Austin is one of the few cities of its size in the nation without a medical school. And he acknowledged the comprehensive community effort, led by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and the strong relationship the UT System, UT Southwestern and UT Austin have with the Seton Healthcare Family through an affiliation agreement.

Seton currently funds and supports 200 UT Southwestern Medical Center residents in 14 medical residency and fellowship programs and supports 133 full-time faculty members who teach residents and medical students, in addition to 149 volunteer faculty members.

“This is a paradigm shift in Texas from the current model of separate universities and health science centers spread across the state,” Cigarroa said. “The educational and research relationships of UT Austin will dramatically and positively change with the establishment of a school of medicine. And for this reason, I believe there is a strong and compelling rationale to provide funding for this effort by increasing the Available University Fund distribution rate from 45 percent to 48 percent and allocating appropriate STARS funding to help recruit faculty for the school of medicine.”

The increase in the AUF allocation is anticipated to provide an additional $25 million a year in funds to UT Austin. The Board also allocated $5 million for each of the next eight years to help UT Austin recruit outstanding faculty. The financial commitments of the Board of Regents are contingent upon the continuation of the Seton Healthcare Family support of graduate medical education residency programs and clinical faculty positions at current or increased levels, and the availability of reliable and continuing funding of $35 million annually from local community sources for the direct support of a medical school at UT Austin.

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