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By G. Romero Wendorf

MISSION – Mission Mayor Norberto “Beto” Salinas is the kind of guy you either love or hate. Like most guys with strong personalities, there’s little division between his admirers and his detractors.

Right now is a perfect example. He just led a coup of sorts against the Valley’s new medical school, convincing the Mission city commission, in unanimous fashion, to bow out of its commitment to contribute a quarter of a million dollars to the new University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Medical School.

Previously, the city, along with the county and cities of McAllen, Edinburg and Pharr had agreed to support the medical school with annual payments. In the case of Mission, it would have been $250,000 annually until 2019 or until voters in Hidalgo County approved a hospital district.

The hospital district is expected to appear on the county ballot next November after suffering a defeat last year.

Last time around, however, the new hospital district tax was capped at 75 cents per $100 property valuation. The county commission promised it would start out at 8 cents and would like never go above 25 cents.

Voters said no.

The Valley lawmakers returned to Austin this past legislative session and got a new hospital district bill passed, with this one capped at 25 cents per $100. Anything above that has to go on the ballot.

Needless to say, Salinas has never been shy about stepping on toes, and as mentioned at the top of the story, this has resulted in people calling him either saint or sinner. You either love Beto or, well, you wish he would have lost the last election. Unseating him, however, has proven a chore over the years, considering he’s been Mission mayor for the past 18 years. A lot of people have tried to knock him off his saddle, and a lot of people have failed.

He started out as a kid who grew up in Cuevitas, a little town along the river south of Sullivan City. He graduated from Rio Grande City High School in 1965, and then started his own ambulance company, the old well-known Catalina, at the relatively young age of 20. Before long, he had McAllen, Mission and most of the western part of Hidalgo County under contract as their ambulance provider. Then he moved east and serviced the Harlingen area as well.

In 1980, the political bug bit him and he ran for Hidalgo County commissioner, which he won. During his second term, he sold Catalina (1987) because he says he was spending too much time working on county business. Since then, he’s remained in politics and some land development.

In some ways, Beto, as his supporters affectionately call him, is reminiscent of McAllen’s longtime mayor, Othal Brand, who usually said what he meant and didn’t care whether people liked it or not. Like Brand, Salinas is a tiger when it comes to politics, but it seems as if he honestly believes that if he does what he thinks is right, that will win the election, as opposed to saying what he thinks people want to hear.

His opponents, of course, will say that’s a bunch of baloney. Beto will say anything if he thinks it will win him some votes, they claim.

To discuss his seeming unpopular decision by some of his mayoral colleagues to pull Mission’s $250k out of the med school pool, The Advance recently interviewed him to find out what led to his decision.

So what’s the deal? Mission said it would contribute $250,000 to the new medical school. Now, it says it won’t.

Beto Salinas: “We want to stop the funding until we fnd out what they really want to do because they know that we are very much against the creation of a hospital district. We are only foreseeing supporting the medical school. We don't have any problems giving the $250,000. We could probably give them more if they would only just not have the (hospital district) election all over again.

“What I've seen is that if they would have told the public, when they brought this medical school down here, that we had to create a hospital district to support the medical school, I mean, I think it's very unfair that they bring the medical school but they don't bring money with it.

“If we have to support it by us giving them the $250,000 or maybe more, fine. But only if they would just not go after a hospital district, because once they create one, they're saying it’s going to be 8 cents. It’s probably going to be 8 cents at the beginning but by the time it’s all over, it will be up to 75 cents per $100 property valuation, and our people can’t afford that.”

The way I understand it is, if it goes above the 25 cents per $100 property valuation, the voters have to approve it.

Salinas: “Yes. By that time, they'll probably have an election where there's nobody at the polls. They can have an election whenever they want to. It can be an election that has very few people going out to vote; only the people that want to be able to change the 25 cents.

“That cap can be changed by just having an election, say, in the middle of an area of the year when there are no elections. They’ll be able to have low-voter turnout and get them to raise the cap, It becomes a big, big burden to the taxpayers.”

If the hospital district were taken off the table, you’re saying you wouldn’t have a problem giving money to fund the new medical school?

Salinas: “If they (the county commission) would just go ahead and commit themselves not to have this election, we’ll give them a check. Why don’t others participate, instead of just four cities (Mission, McAllen, Edinburg and Pharr)? We’d probably even give them more than $250,000 if they would only just stay away from having a hospital district.

“It seems the only way we can get their attention is by voting to not give them any money.

“They're spending 6%. The whole problem is over there at the county. They have a mess.”

When Mission decided to contribute the money for the medical school, the hospital district was never part of the equation, or was it?

Salinas: “The thing is, when we first met about the medical school, at our first meeting, they were talking about the medical school. I was at that meeting. It was a Sunday afternoon. At the end of the meeting ... I wasn't saying really much. I always thought that they were going to try and get a hospital district. My only question to them was, ‘Are you going to create a hospital district, because if you are, I'm going to be against it.’ They (county and local hospital leaders) told me, ‘No, we're not going to create a hospital district.’ ”

You’ve said before that having a hospital district along the border is problematic. Can you explain why?

Salinas: “We do have so many entities already that it’s crazy. If you have a hospital district in Temple, Texas, or you having a hospital district in San Antonio, it’s fne. You don't have a border city. You don't have a border town to the south, like we do, with 2 million people living there.

“We still don't know how many people in our local hospitals are coming from south of the border, because the hospitals have to take them. They cannot turn them away.”

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