Thursday, September 8, 2011

Bond issue could help fix county's drainage system

Rio Grande Guardian
September 8, 2011
by Steve Taylor

McALLEN, Sept. 8 - Concerns have been raised as to whether Hidalgo County Commissioners can be trusted to spend money in the right areas if it is raised on the bond market for drainage projects.

Those showing concern, such as Alton Mayor Salvador Vela, point to the fact that $60 million raised in 2006 was spent not on fixing drainage problems in the Delta region, which is where voters were told the money would go, but was siphoned off to build a border wall near the McAllen Foreign Trade Zone.

“County commissioners changed their minds because of politics, to favor one group, a certain part of McAllen. They did not care about the poverty stricken people in the Delta. That really gets me,” Vela told the Guardian.

Asked if the people of Alton would vote for a bond issue if the money was used to fix the drainage system, Vela said no. “They would not. I would tell them. I would tell them not to vote for it. If I tell them, don’t vote for it they won’t. They know me,” he said.

Vela made his comments at the end of a meeting of the Hidalgo County Advisory Committee, which met at the McAllen Chamber of Commerce offices on Wednesday. The 25-member committee was set up by Hidalgo County Commissioners Court to advise on drainage matters and to disseminate information to the general public.

Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 Director Godfrey Garza defended the actions of county commissioners in a lively exchange with Ann Cass, executive director of Proyecto Azteca. “The money went to build the border wall, not the levees that were most vulnerable,” Cass said.

Not so, said Garza. He said that by leveraging the $60 million from the bond issue, county commissioners were able to “merge” their funds with $200 million from the Department of Homeland Security in order to reconstruct levees in the interior floodway.

Garza said if the levees had not been repaired, FEMA would have decertified them, leaving Hidalgo County residents and businesses unable to buy flood insurance. “We saw the need or the (Commissioner’s) Court saw the need. They said, ‘hey, this (decertification) could kill the economy of the county as a whole’,” Garza said.

Discussion on whether Hidalgo County Commissioners should go to the bond markets again to pay for the renovation of the county’s drainage system was initiated at Wednesday’s meeting by Sharyland businessman Joe Phillips.

Phillips said a one cent tax effort across Hidalgo County could generate approximately $2.6 million a year. That money could be used as collateral for a bond issue, he said.

“If we were to do a 30 year or 40 year bond issue going out, one penny, just a penny, could basically resolve our issues in the western part of the county, resolve our issues in Edcouch-Elsa, resolve our issues in the other part of Precinct 1,” Phillips said.

“I am a marketer. From a marketing perspective, selling one penny to resolve our drainage issues to me is a no brainer and very easy to sell.”

Phillips said he hoped Hidalgo County leaders would “think big” when it comes to raising the funds to fix the county’s drainage issues.

“Hidalgo County is growing tremendously. I think people are aware of the recent floods and what can happen. I think people in the metropolitan area of McAllen are aware of the fact that some of the monies were originally destined to go to Edcouch-Elsa came in to protect the industrial base. But that does not mean we do not need to very quickly get in and make that right. With record low interest rates, now is the time, probably to think big rather than small,” Phillips said.

Garza said the board of Drainage District No. 1, which comprises Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia and the four county commissioners, agree with such an approach. He said the board was looking to find the best financing mechanism and that he could come back to the advisory committee in three or four months with such a plan.

Phillips said he has spoken to many business owners in Hidalgo County and he detects no opposition to a tax increase if the money is used to resolve the county’s drainage issues.

“I have heard people are say it may take three or four cents and that’s nothing to make sure we never get flooded out. There is a lot of sympathy, I think, within the business community of the whole Valley. It is not just the McAllen area or Mission area. We’ve got to make sure Edcouch-Elsa does not flood. We’ve got to make sure other parts of Precinct 1 do not flood. Everybody understands. The colonias were built, people bought because land was cheap. It does not matter. We’ve got to take care of them,” Phillips said.

Giving an overview of Hidalgo County’s efforts to improve the drainage system over the decades, Garza said the federal government has hardly ever come through for the county. He said in the absence of federal help, county leaders were taking the initiative. He said county commissioners are about to issue a ‘Request for Qualifications’ to hire a firm to begin updating of the county’s master drainage plan. He said the plan has not been updated for the last 14 years.

Asked by a reporter how much it would cost to develop a quality drainage system in Hidalgo County, one that would safeguard all residents, Garza said: “You are probably looking at anywhere between $500 million to $700 million.” Asked how much money the county has for such a project, Garza said: “Zero.” Asked how it could be financed, Garza said: “It is going to be a combination of state money, bond money, a project to recapture water where we would sell water and use the money to offset bonding needs so that we do not need to raise so much from taxes. We are looking at a bunch of different avenues that are out there.”

Fixing the levees and building a border wall is supposed to be the responsibility of the federal government. Drainage Advisory Committee member Virginia Townsend said she would like to see Hidalgo County recover the $60 million it spent on the levee-wall project. Garza replied that county commissioners are about to hire a firm that will seek to recover the funds.

One of the co-chairs of the Drainage Advisory Committee is Dr. Francisco Guajardo, a professor at the University of Texas-Pan American. When discussion turned to whether county commissioners were right to move drainage money earmarked for the Delta to the McAllen Foreign Trade Zone, Guajardo said: “I appreciate the business community… but San Carlos and Edcouch don’t feel good about the $100 million (bond issue) that was passed previously.”

“I do not blame them,” Phillips responded.

Guajardo said he would like to see more documentation about the state of the county’s drainage system posted online. “Let’s begin to post stuff that can help our community understand what this is,” he told the committee.

Guajardo also said that he and the other co-chair of the committee, McAllen City Commissioner Jim Darling, will be meeting with County Judge Garcia and the county commissioners within the next few days to ascertain the exact function of the advisory committee.

“There needs to be a clear communication between this committee and the elected officials. We need to understand what their thinking is. I see this as a reciprocal kind of communication. I do not think it will be a one sided thing,” Guajardo said.

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