After a push by Delta residents, Hidalgo County may bring back Precinct 5

Hidalgo County may bring back Precinct 5.

Hidalgo County may bring back Precinct 5.

Precinct 5 served the northeast corner of Hidalgo County — including Edcouch, Elsa, La Villa and Monte Alto — for more than a century, providing a local justice of the peace to settle disputes and a constable to keep watch over the community.

Constituents forged tight bonds with Justice of the Peace Espiridion "Speedy" Jackson, who developed a reputation for dispensing advice on legal problems, and Constable Eduardo “Walo” Bazan, who regularly unlocked cars for constituents. Both men served Precinct 5 for more than two decades.

Concerns about Bazan — who won re-election despite a felony conviction, creating a long-running legal controversy — and the precinct’s relatively small population prompted the Commissioners Court to nix Precinct 5 during November 2011.

The Delta, though, remains a political powerhouse thanks to high voter turnout. Residents recently started putting pressure on Hidalgo County, asking the Commissioners Court to re-establish Precinct 5.

“I hope the Commissioners Court will consider bringing back Precinct 5,” said Edcouch-Elsa school board Trustee Robert Schmalzreid, the former mayor of Edcouch.

Elsa City Manager Juan Jose “J.J.” Ybarra sent a letter to the county judge and all four county commissioners on April 28 requesting they consider re-establishing Precinct 5. The Edcouch Board of Aldermen passed a resolution on May 2 making a similar request.

Both Edcouch and Elsa justified the proposal by citing an uptick in crime and a growing population.

County Judge Ramon Garcia said he always opposed abolishing Precinct 5 and supports the push to bring it back.

“I didn’t agree with it then,” Garcia said. “And I certainly don’t agree with it now.”

While Garcia said he supports re-establishing the Precinct 5 Constable’s Office, he’s still studying whether or not northeast Hidalgo County requires a justice of the peace.

The Commissioners Court may discuss Precinct 5 at an upcoming meeting.

“I’m not sure how many commissioners feel the way I do,” Garcia said.

Former District Attorney Rene Guerra, who spearheaded the push to abolish Precinct 5, said he thought the proposal would waste money.

With such a small caseload, Hidalgo County couldn’t justify the Precinct 5 justice of the peace court, Guerra said. The constable’s office also failed to justify its existence and spent years embroiled in controversy after Bazan’s felony conviction.

The Commissioners Court shouldn’t saddle taxpayers with the cost, especially for a money-losing justice of the peace court, Guerra said.

“Tell them to lower their salaries and fund the court with the reduction in their salaries,” Guerra said, challenging the Commissioners Court. “That’s what I would tell them. That way the taxpayers wouldn't have to spend that much money.”

How the county would fund another constable’s office and justice of the peace court remains unclear.

Hidalgo County budgeted nearly $276,000 for the Precinct 5 justice of the peace court and about $495,000 for the Precinct 5 Constable’s Office in 2012.

When the Commissioners Court dissolved Precinct 5, the county divided the deputy constable positions among neighboring precincts. Hidalgo County could staff the new Precinct 5 Constable’s Office by creating new positions or take back deputy constables from neighboring precincts.

“If the commissioners and the county judge support that, I’m willing to help them out in any way I can — even though I would love to keep the staff that I have,” said Precinct 1 Constable Celestino Avila Jr.

Avila said he’s heard complaints from people in Hargill and Monte Alto about a lack of law enforcement presence. Deputy constables patrol school zones in both communities, which aren’t incorporated and don’t have police departments. They rely on the Sheriff’s Office for criminal investigations and other calls.

Three deputy constable positions moved from Precinct 5 shifted to Precinct 1. Handing back three positions would leave Precinct 1 with just 10 deputy constables, but Avila said he trusts the Commissioners Court to make the right decision.

“I’ll back whatever they decide is in the best interest of the people,” Avila said.

Precinct 1 County Commissioner David Fuentes said he’s heard about the push to bring back Precinct 5.

“I think that, geographically, it’s separated to a point where they make a great case,” Fuentes said. “But I need more data to actually support that.”

The cost remains a concern.

“We have a finite budget,” Fuentes said. “And it’s not like we can just create things on a whim. We have to have a plan in place.”

Moving deputy constable positions to Precinct 5 would reduce the number of law enforcement officers available to assist the large number of rural residents in Precinct 1.

Fuentes said he takes complaints about crime in the Delta and access to justice of the peace courts seriously. If re-establishing the Precinct 5 would solve the problem, Fuentes said he’ll consider it.

“I don’t think there’s any harm at looking at options,” Fuentes said. “The question will be whether it makes sense, whether it will be something we can economically sustain.”

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