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Zanoni said change is needed; Canales 'fiercely' disagrees

Peter Zanoni 1020.png
Posted at 5:16 PM, Oct 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-21 10:14:32-04

After the Corpus Christi City Council announced it will sever ties with Nueces County regarding the public health district, most people have only one question.

“The big question is ‘Why?’ said Corpus Christi Taxpayers Association Vice President Jack Gordy. “I don’t see big problems right now, so why in the world are they changing it?”

City manager Peter Zanoni said he’s also seen questions, and some negative reactions on social media, but said he believes they’re motivated by a lack of information.

“I think our community doesn't even know that we pay for health services using tax dollars, and that they may not be getting the best health services, the best value,” he said.

Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales said during Wednesday's COVID-19 news conference that she "fiercely" disagrees with the decision and how it was carried out.

"We are partners, and we were not given the courtesy as a partner to know that this action was even being considered by leadership," she said. "I expect more from our partner."

Zanoni said that in the two-and-a-half years he has been the city manager, the topic has come up. He also said it's a conversation that's been taking place between public officials that predate both he and Canales.

But Canales said that the arrival of flu season is just one of the many reasons now is not a good time for this kind of change.

"This is the wrong time, in my opinion, to do this," she said. "We are in the middle of a pandemic."

Zanoni admits the middle of a global pandemic seems like a strange time to shake things up in public health, but if anything, the pandemic is what exposed the system's faults.

“So the pandemic, what it has done is it is really — revealed more than ever — that we have a system that's not working, and that the health outcomes for the community are not what they want,” he said.

He said people’s complaints about having to go to Robstown's Richard M. Borchard Regional Fairgrounds for vaccines in January, and having to wait overnight to get one, prompted action on a problem that he said the city has been looking at for 20 years.

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“The private sector -- working businesses -- don't keep working dysfunctionally,” he said. “They change. Doesn't matter what time of year it is, or what's going on. And we, and the city government need to be similar. … We've got to change it so that the outcomes that the community wants, we can achieve, and so that's what we're doing.”

Canales argues that cohesion is needed to be able to continue to stave off COVID-19.

"The continuity and stability of operations and services provided by local health jurisdictions throughout the state of Texas are critical to the statewide effort to combat this deadly public-health crisis and the pandemic," she said.

She said she will be amenable to a decision if it's one the county and the city both agree on.

"If there is a will from both jurisdictions to part, I'm committed to doing my part in creating a fair and equitable process to do so," Canales said.

Zanoni said issues such as the public health district's financial and administrative structures require the split.

In some cases, he said, city taxpayers are footing 60 percent of the health district’s costs – and 100 percent when it comes to certain operational costs – but that the city taxpayer isn’t the one getting the biggest return on its investment.

“The city taxpayer is disproportionately paying for the cost of health care services for the area," he said. "We take care of all the things for the district, the county and the city. When it comes to purchasing -- when it comes to other matters that run the business. So, predominantly, the city taxpayer is funding the bill for the district.”

Gordy said his concerns are what the city will do after the split from the county, and if the money already paid by city taxpayers will be returned to the city.

“We’re concerned about the tax money,” he said. “We think the city should get it back, and it should come back to us for our benefit.”

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In the contract drawn up in 2009 spelling out employees’ pay and benefits, the agreement states that certain employees were to fall under specific city policies and receive certain benefits, while others do not. It’s a system Zanoni said “causes dysfunction.”

“We have to do two groups of employees reporting to two different governmental entities that supposedly work side by side, although they have different pay structures, different holiday schedules, different bosses,” he said.

Zanoni said the city is auditing precisely how the Corpus Christi-Nueces County Public Health District is spending money because currently, it doesn’t know.

“This will be my third budget,” said Zanoni, who has been the Corpus Christi City Manager since May 2019. “Each of them was tough to really get that question answered.”

Gordy also is concerned about tax increases for city residents in order to make up for the funds not being provided by Nueces County taxpayers.

“They raise taxes on everything else, so it won’t surprise me if they try to raise these taxes,” he said.

KRIS 6 News multimedia journalist Patrick Johnstone contributed to this story.