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County judge candidates discuss key issues

By: Genevieve Curtis

EL PASO, Texas--Early voting is underway for the most powerful elected position in the county, the seat of county judge.
KFOX14 sat down with the candidates, current County Judge Veronica Escobar, Aliana Apodaca and city Rep. Eddie Holguin Jr to talk about some of the key issues facing the county.

Watch full interviews with the candidates.

In the past several years property taxes in the county have steadily increased.
Escobar said yes, taxes have gone up but she attributes that to years of lowering taxes during a poor economy which left the county in a mess and she says previous administrations failed to support the needs of the county and passed the buck.
Now, she said the courts attention is on finding ways to generate revenue because raising taxes is not sustainable.
We were highly inefficient because we have not had the courage to invest where we needed to invest, so we saw taxes were going to go up either because of our inefficiency or because we had to replace outdated equipment and outdated infrastructure. We've done that. So now we have to look for ways to find savings elsewhere and raise revenue elsewhere, said Escobar.
Apodaca said taxes is one of the key concerns she hears when she's knocking on doors and talking to voters. She said she'd take a look at the budget to look for inefficiencies and examine the county's assets.
Our taxes for the city have increased almost 20 percent in the last three years so you can say there are reasons for it and you can say they are explainable but we can't sustain it and so there is debt that's being incurred, so we have to make some decisions as a community (about) what are we going to do with that.  Theres mandated services and theres un-mandated services and the voter needs to decide what we want to do moving forward and still maintain solvency, said Apodaca.
Opposing government spending and voting against taxes has been city Rep. Eddie Holguin Jr.s trademark in his nearly nine years as a public official. He said that philosophy won't change if elected to the county.
I feel the government should live within its means, not  overspend and provide core services to the citizens and not be creating extra buildings and extra things that are not mandated by the state like the current county judge does, which causes taxes to go up, said Holguin.
In a community with more than 200,000 uninsured people, providing health care through the county funded hospital, University Medical Center, is one of the county's pivotal roles.
Recently, the county, including, Escobar, approved a $152 million bond to fund three UMC clinics to help treat patients before they end up in the emergency room.
Health care is about keeping people out of the emergency room because the emergency room is so costly, taxpayers don't want people in the hospital, and they want to keep people out of the hospital. What we have seen in the past few years at UMC is our emergency costs going up $10 million every year, said Escobar.
Apodaca said she felt the clinics should have gone to the voters.
Its important we take care of our people in this world of uncertainty with Obamacare, with Medicaid reimbursement being cut, its important to be frugal about it and be very careful about how we are going to do that. To me, its looking at creative ways, creating partnerships with public private partnerships to be able to provide services for our people and still be doing what we need to do for the taxpayers as well, said Apodaca.
Holguin said he is against the clinics.
I feel we can provide quality health care at the hospital without building mini hospitals all over the city which really cost the taxpayers 100 and millions of dollars.  I do think we feel we have to provide health care but the people who need the services understand that they have to go down to the hospital to get those kinds of services, said Holguin.
The office of county judge has been clouded in the past and the country crippled after several former county judges were indicted in public corruption scandals and are now serving federal prison time.
Since taking office, Escobar said she has a proven track record of making changes and implementing policies to cut out corruption.
The work is all about internal reform, so we started with the ethics commission to make sure we could hold people accountable so that vendors, employees, or members of the public had a place to go where their identity was kept secret, where there was no concern about repercussions, where they didnt fear for their jobs or fear retaliation. We did that, said Escobar.
Holguin believes open government is the key to preventing public corruption
The first thing we have to do is have an open government and we have to be open with the citizens and not  tell citizens  what they want to hear and hide things. For example, the city has been hiding emails from certain City Council members for over a year, said Holguin.
Apodaca said if elected she would implement more oversight at the county level.
Transparency to me is to have a combination of public private committees that are reviewing what is being done. We dont have a financial and audit oversight committee. We need to have that because we want to prevent what happened at EPISD from happening at the county as well so you have committees that you can engage your citizens to review these projects are they on target, are they on time, are they doing what they are supposed to do, said Apodaca.
KFOX14 also asked the candidates about the publics perception of them and whether they think they are accurate.
Some call Escobar Vero the Hero but her progressive changes havent always been popular.
I hope that people understand the investments we've made have been absolutely necessary in order to avoid deeper, more costly investments down the road. I hope people see me as a reformer, I hope people see me as someone who is devoted to the job, who is a very hardworking county judge. I hope people see me as the most accessible county judge they've ever had because I go to them they don't have to come to me. I hope they see me as an El Pasoan who loves her community and deserves to finish the job she started, said Escobar.
Apodaca hasnt held public office before and she believes that works to her advantage.
What I hear from people when I'm out there is that I am refreshing, I am not a politician, I am not looking for the next political office. I'm doing this for the these four years and I am going to give it all I  have and to bring some accountability, some common sense sensibilities to be able to work with people, develop relationships. How I stand out is that I bring the leadership skills necessary to bring all elected officials to work together, said Apodaca.
Holguin knows people see him as the no man for consistently voting against changes.

Every single time I vote no is because that no -- if it had been a vote yes -- it would be costing the taxpayers millions of dollars. I always like to question when its costing the citizens millions of dollars.  It takes a leader to say no it takes a follower to say yes every single time. Im not a follower, Im a leader and being a leader you have to know when to say no to the millions being spent, said Holguin.
Election Day is March 4.