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County commissioners fund health initiatives with federal COVID-19 relief

Bexar County Courthouse
Brian Kirkpatrick
Bexar County Courthouse

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Bexar County commissioners on Tuesday allocated $31 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to address healthy child and family development, healthy eating access, active living, and behavioral and mental well-being.

Dr. Andrea Guerrero-Guajardo, head of the county's public health department, presented commissioners with the county's zip codes where household assets are most limited and income is most constrained.

Those same zip codes also have higher rates of death and child abuse and lower rates of education and health insurance than other parts of the county.

Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease remain the county's biggest killers.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores noted her precinct, which covers most of Southwest and South Bexar County, had the most abysmal data. She called it "health injustice."

"This presentation to me is really sad, " she told Guajardo. "I mean if we look at all the data that you gave, Precinct 1is almost number one in all of them, which is reflective of the things that I have been advocating for and talking about — over and over — how the southern sector of Bexar County has been simply left behind."

The funding is intended to be spent on programs or on outside partners to turn those trends around. Clay-Flores said the data proved what has been done in the past has not worked. She called for better accountability by the county and its partners, like University Health, in the future.

Sixty-three percent of households in Precinct 1 were having a tough time making ends meet, according to the data presented by Guajardo, compared to nearly 52% for the rest of the county. It has a 2021 death rate of nearly 1,257 per 100,000 households in 2021, during the pandemic, compared to 953 deaths for the rest of the county in the same year comparison. Around 27% of residents in Precinct 1 have less than a high school diploma.

The county and University Health have approved tens of millions of dollars for a new county public health headquarters and a county hospital near Texas A&M-San Antonio on the South Side as part of the effort to bring that part of the county up to par with the rest of the county when it comes to health care and health access.

In other action on Tuesday, commissioners approved the start of negotiations American Gateways and the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services to provide legal services for local migrants who find themselves the subject of federal deportation hearings. The negotiations also include a $1 million allocation to pay for the outside legal services for migrants.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Justin Rodriguez, who represents a broad swath of West and Northwest Bexar County, expressed full support for the negotiations to land outside legal services. He said many of those migrants have jobs, contribute to the local economy and pay taxes. He also said the outside legal counsel could keep local migrant families from being torn apart.

"It's about connecting these folks with resources to get their lives together and on track and become legal ... in most cases, if they qualify," he said.

The sole Republican commissioner, Precinct 3's Grant Moody, voted against moving forward on talks to provide outside legal services for migrants. He said the county already has some in-house legal services migrants could take advantage of, so he considered it duplication as far as county taxpayers are concerned.

He was also concerned county taxpayers would be paying the tab to defend some migrants facing deportation who may have committed a serious crime.

"Are there any limitations on when we would provide services depending on whether there was a criminal background or ... a serious crime committed and now on the immigration side we're providing support and funding for?"

"I'm not able to support this, and I think I've made my thoughts and concerns known," Moody said.

He said county staffers have been given months to provide him with an answer to his concerns. He urged them to include his concerns in their upcoming negotiations with the outside legal service providers.

New jury pay scale and jury summons notice

In other county news unrelated to commissioners, local jury pay has been increased under new state laws that took effect Sept. 1.

Potential jurors will also see a redesigned jury summons show up in the mail.

Juror pay for the first day of service is going up from $6 to $20 per hour. For each subsequent day of service, a juror's pay has been increased from $40 to $58 per day.

A new jury summons card also explains jury service requirements on a simple postcard.

State District Judge Ron Rangel said around 68% of Bexar County residents that receive a summons perform their civic duty.

"There are some locations in Texas where the sheriff has been sent out to pick up jurors to bring them in to exercise their duty. We have never had that situation in Bexar County," he said.

The state also increased the age exemption for jury service from 70 to 75.

The county sends out more than 6,000 jury summons a week, Rangel explained.

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