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Featured, from left: Rep. Terry Canales, Chair, House Committee on Transportation, D-Edinburg; David de Los Santos, EMT-P, Business Development Manager, Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med; and Edinburg Chief of Police César Torres, at Edinburg City Hall on Thursday, February 14, 2019.

Photograph By MARK MONTEMAYOR

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State legislation supported by Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med would eliminate home property taxes for surviving spouses of certain federal first responders killed in the line of duty

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Legislativemedia@aol.com

State legislation by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, which would eliminate home property taxes for the surviving spouses of certain federal first responders who are killed or fatally injured in the line of duty, has been endorsed by Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med.

Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med, which is headquartered in Edinburg, is the largest EMS (emergency medical service) company south of San Antonio. The privately-owned firm has 430 highly-trained staff members, basic/advanced paramedics, certified flight paramedics, registered nurses, and support personnel.

In addition, Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med has more than 100 ambulances, wheel chair vans, supervisor units, as well as a communications bus used for disasters, and a special operations trailer equipped for mass casualty incidents, and two fixed wing Beechcraft King Air 90 air ambulances dedicated to emergency transfers. In a matter of weeks, it will be introducing rotor (helicopter) air ambulance services for deep South Texas.

The measure, Senate Bill 129, whose primary author is Hinojosa, received full Senate approval on Wednesday, April 17, 2019, and has been sent to the House of Representatives for their action.

Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, serves as a a coauthor of SB 129.

A coauthor is a legislator authorized by the primary author of a bill or resolution to join in the authorship of the measure. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives allow an unlimited number of coauthors on a bill or resolution. A coauthor must be a member of the chamber in which the bill was filed.

A decision will soon be made by Hinojosa on who will be the prime sponsor of SB 129 in the Texas House of Representatives.

The sponsor is the legislator who guides a bill through the legislative process after the bill has passed the originating chamber. The sponsor is a member of the opposite chamber of the one in which the bill was filed.

On Wednesday, April 24, 2019, SB 129 was assigned to the House Committee on Ways and Means.

SB 129, if passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor, would be the most recent expansion of existing state law that currently provides the financial protections to eligible spouses of fallen U.S. military personnel and public safety professionals in Texas.

“In keeping with the spirit of previous legislation, SB 129 would expand the definition of first responder to include Customs and Border Protection officers and agents, Department of Homeland Security officers, and special agents of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” Hinojosa testified when his bill was first heard on Tuesday, April 9, 2019 by the Senate Committee on Property Tax.

Under existing Texas law, a “first responder” means a public safety employee or volunteer whose duties include responding rapidly to an emergency. The term includes a peace officer whose duties include responding rapidly to an emergency; fire protection personnel under Section 419.021; a volunteer firefighter who is certified by the Texas Commission on Fire Protection or by the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshalls’ Association of Texas; a member of an organized volunteer fire-fighting unit as described by Section 615.003; and an individual certified as emergency medical services personnel by the Department of State Health Services.

Paul M. Vazaldua, Jr., Vice President of Organizational Leadership and Government Affairs for Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med, said Hinojosa and Lucio deserve credit for taking leadership roles on behalf of first responders in Texas.

“There are numerous state legislative issues being considered at the State Capitol that are designed to protect the people such as first-responders who risk their lives to protect all Texans, and we certainly support Senate Bill 129 because it will help our comrades and their families at the federal government level,” Vazaldua said. “We will be working closely with our outstanding Valley state representatives to get it approved by the House of Representatives.”

When Hinojosa’s SB 129 was heard on Tuesday, April 9, 2019, the following individuals and any organizations they were representing appeared and registered for, on, or against the bill:

For:

Yolanda Davis, Texas Municipal Police Association, Austin, Texas;
Ray Hunt, Past President, Houston Police Officers Union, Houston;
Deandre Hutchison, Vice President, Afro American Police Officer League, Houston;
Anthony Kivela, Houston; and
Joel Romo, Association of Texas EMS Professionals, Brenham.

Against:

Alexis Tatum, Travis County Commissioners Court, Austin.

The leadership of Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med, along with other supporters of legislation that affects public safety and law enforcement professionals, have contended that “spouses of fallen first responders lose a source of income, which can jeopardize their ability to pay property taxes and may ultimately affect surviving spouses’ ability to maintain their homesteads,” according to bill analyses on this issue by the House Research Organization.

The House Research Organization is the nonpartisan research arm of the Texas House of Representatives, and the organization provides bill analyses, which includes background, and the pros and cons, of major legislation, to the Texas Legislature and to the public.

“Families of fallen first responders in these situations should not forced to sell their homes due to this sudden financial burden,” according to the House Research Organization. “These first responders dedicated and gave their lives for the protection of Texans. Removing this tax burden from their surviving spouses would be a tangible way that Texas could show its gratitude.”

Hinojosa said the need for his SB 129 “was brought to our attention by a constituent who lost her husband in the line of duty while serving as a Border Patrol agent. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement provided our office with the number of CBP and ICE law enforcement officers who were killed in the line of duty over the last 10 years.”

From 2009 through April 23, 2019, more than a dozen agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection died as a result of being in the line of duty. 2019

If SB 129 is approved by the Texas Legislature and signed into law by the governor, the property tax exemption would apply to a tax year beginning on or after January 1, 2020.

In 2013, Senate Bill 163 was approved by the 83rd Texas Legislature that provided for the surviving spouse of U.S. service members killed in the line of duty to receive a total property tax exemption on the resident homestead.

A resident homestead can be a separate structure, condominium or a manufactured home located on owned or leased land, as long as the individual living in the home owns it. The home’s owner must be an individual (for example: not a corporation or other business entity) and use the home as his or her principal residence.

In 2017, Senate Bill 15, which was approved by the 85th Texas Legislature, expanded the homestead exemption to the surviving spouse of a first responder killed in the line of duty. As a result, the definition of “first responder” now includes 17 different types of individuals, such as: peace officers, probation officers, parole officers, jailers, volunteer firefighters, EMS, DPS troopers, and game wardens.

As is the case with SB 163 from 2013 and SB 15 from 2017, the surviving spouse of this new class of federal first responders would only be entitled to the homestead exemption if they have not remarried since the death of the first responder, and only if the first responder was a Texas resident at the time of death.

EDINBURG CISD POLICE DEPARTMENT EARNS NATIONAL SECURITY AWARD

The Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District Board of Trustees recently honored the district’s Police Department for earning the national Security 500 Rankings award for 2018, which recognized the school district for its safety and security policies, and efforts to keep students safe.

“Congratulations to Edinburg CISD on its successful security and safety program,” said Diane Ritchey, Editor-in-Chief of Security Magazine, which conducted the 2018 Security 500 report. “Securing a school district, including its facilities, students, staff and visitors, is a large undertaking that requires leadership, innovation, dedication, and strong partnerships.”

Ritchey said that her team has been monitoring the work of the ECISD Police Department in the area of security, ranking the department among the top 30 school districts in the U.S. and the top five in Texas.

“I’m very honored and excited to receive this award because it demonstrates the hard work that these officers do on a daily basis, protecting our students, our staff and our visitors on the school district’s jurisdictions and properties,” said ECISD Police Chief Ricardo Pérez, Jr.

Edinburg CISD is the only school district in Hidalgo County and in South Texas with a fully active SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team with 16 SWAT members, including a tactical medic.

“Edinburg CISD continues to show its leadership in this area, particularly with its recent accomplishment of having a dedicated member of law enforcement on site at each district campus,” Ritchey said. “It is an honor to highlight such a successful, resilient, and unique security program.”

The district’s police department consists of approximately 120 team members, including 81 police officers and 30 security guards.

“This award represents one of the departments that is the vital component in creating a safer learning environment for our students and for ensuring that our taxpayers’ property is protected from damage, destruction and vandalism, because officers put their lives on the line,” Pérez said.

EDINBURG POLICE CHIEF SELECTS SOUTH TEXAS COLLEGE FOR SWAT VEHICLE RETROFIT

When Edinburg Chief of Police César Torres realized that his newly acquired, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) SWAT utility vehicle had practical deficiencies, he could have seen it as a problem. Instead, he saw it as an opportunity for a regional collaboration with South Texas College.

“I chose STC for this project due to working with STC in the past and getting to know Dean Mario Reyna,” says Torres. “The STC Welding program is organized and the projects completed in the past have exceeded my expectations. It is Edinburg Police Department’s honor to have younger students to be part of this.”

When Dean Reyna of South Texas College’s Division of Business, Public Safety, and Technology brought the project to Sara Lozano, Program Chair of the Architectural, Engineering, and Design Technology Program, she and her faculty jumped at the chance.

“We are always looking for opportunities like these,” Lozano said on Friday, April 12, 2019. “It’s really powerful for students to get hands-on experience working on projects that have an impact on the community, so they’re not just reading from a book about a fictional project. These types of projects have a lasting impact on them.”

Today, STC’s Architectural & Engineering Design Technology, Automotive/Diesel, Advanced Manufacturing, and Welding programs are learning a lesson in real-world collaboration as they actively retrofit the vehicle for urban use by the heroic SWAT members whose lives may one day depend on it.

Esmeralda Leija, an AEDT student who aspires to become a licensed architect, explained the value of such collaborations.

“Being in the architectural industry means you have to have knowledge in many fields and be able to work with different components,” she said. “So the ability to learn what it’s like to work on different projects is very useful. The SWAT retrofitting project will allow us as students to gain practical experience by applying our knowledge of the technology we are learning in the classroom.”

This knowledge is especially important as the green revolution and the development of new technologies continue to drive demand for qualified employees within the engineering, automotive, advanced manufacturing, and welding industries. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, this demand is why experienced workers in these fields can command salaries of up to $99,000 per year, with the right credentials.

According to Lozano, who grew up in Edcouch-Elsa where her father was a business owner and her mother a teacher, collaborating with regional businesses teaches students important lessons not just about working together, but about the impact that their work has on their community.

“That’s something all of our programs in this division have in common — we have a direct impact on the world around us,” said Lozano. “We want our students to all leave with some kind of external experience on a project that has gotten them involved with the community.”

Last semester, AEDT students partnered with STC’s Construction Supervision program to design a life-size cadet-training cityscape for STC’s new Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence. After completing designs, students discussed materials, hypothetical budgets, and various other real-world complications that are endemic to such projects.

Leija described another collaborative project, in which STC students partnered with students from the Instituto Tecnológico de Reynosa in Mexico to create a design proposal for a renovation of STC’s Technology Campus atrium in McAllen.

“The fact that we were able to collaborate to share our knowledge of different software and design processes allowed us as students to gain experience writing an architecture design proposal, despite the boundaries like speaking different languages and living in different countries,” Leija said.

For the SWAT vehicle project, faculty developed a set of departmental responsibilities that mimicked the kind of work students might be called on to do in the real world.

Selected students from the AEDT department are in charge of taking measurements and creating blueprints using AutoCAD, the industry-standard drafting software. When those blueprints are complete, Advanced Manufacturing will take them and, along with Welding, fabricate and attach the necessary parts. And when the replacement parts come in, the Automotive/Diesel program will apply their skills to fixing the A/C issue.

The final product, which Lozano hopes will be finished by the end of Spring 2019, will include new skirt rails for team members to stand on, bench seats to replace the less space-efficient bucket seats, a new A/C system, and a front push ram.

As for the future, Lozano is hoping for more of the same.

“Our faculty are always thinking in these terms. They take the initiative and run with it,” she said. “After Dean Reyna brought the SWAT project to us, I took it to my faculty and laid out the opportunity we’d been given and they jumped on it… Basically, we try to practice what we preach when it comes to collaboration. I love our faculty. This is what makes our team unique!”

For more information about the many workforce-ready programs within STC’s Division of Business, Public Safety, and Technology, please visit https://bt.southtexascollege.edu/.

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Dariel Ramírez, Romeo Cantú and Dimitra Hernández contributed to this article. For more information on key state legislation that affects first responders, please contact Paul M. Vazaldua, Jr., Vice President of Organizational Leadership and Government Affairs, Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med, at 956/451-6775. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories which affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).

 

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