WaterWorks will pay for convention center sewer line

HARLINGEN — Sewer ratepayers apparently will end up funding a sewer line expansion at the site of the $14.9 million convention center.

Yesterday morning, the Harlingen WaterWorks board of directors met with city officials before agreeing to fund construction of a project expected to cost about $400,000.

A sewer rate increase approved in 2014 will apparently be tapped to fund the sewer line expansion as part of WaterWorks’ capital improvements projects.

During a 90-minute discussion, city officials asked the WaterWorks board to fund the project.

Finally, after meeting in executive session, WaterWorks members agreed to fund the sewer line expansion.

In 2014, officials approved a rate hike planned to increase each month for 40 months to help fund future capital improvements projects.

The implementation of the overall $4 increase in sewer base fees is being done over a 40-month period. Each month, fees increase by 10 cents so by the end of the 40-month period they add up to $4.

Officials would have to “continue” the rate increase to allow WaterWorks to fund the sewer line expansion, WaterWorks General Manager Darrell Gunn said.

After the meeting, City Manager Dan Serna said officials had not finalized the details behind the plan to fund the sewer line expansion.

In open session, city officials said they believed a $200,000, 10-inch sewer line, installed to help develop the area for Sam’s Wholesale Club in 2011, was large enough to serve the project consisting of the 43,700-square-foot convention center, a 150-room Hilton Garden Inn and a restaurant.

Gunn took responsibility for approving the 10-inch sewer line when the city platted the Sam’s Wholesale Club plat in a Harlingen Heights area primed for further development.

“It’s regrettable,” Gunn told board members. “I apologize to the board.”

WaterWorks, the agency that operates the city’s water and sewer operations, expressed a concern over the 10-inch sewer line that caught city officials by surprise.

“We’ve been planning this for more than one-and-a-half or two years and the first anybody hears about this is two weeks ago,” City Commissioner Tudor Uhlhorn said. “We have time running and this is a brand new hiccup. We’re asking you to take one to get this across the line without overtime fare.”

Gunn said he expressed concern after finding out the project included the hotel.

Gunn said the 10-inch sewer line could handle the convention center and hotel project but the city would have to order a moratorium on further development in the area until the line was expanded.

“If we continue development here we’re going to have sewer overflowing at this intersection,” Gunn said, pointing to a map showing the construction site lying along Interstate 69.

Serna said the city already has borrowed money to fund the convention center’s construction, and couldn’t fund the sewer line expansion.

“That’s not chump change,” Serna said, referring to the cost of the sewer line expansion. “That’s a lot of money for anyone.”

Serna said questions surrounding the sewer line were holding back the construction project.

“We can’t finalize the plat until we get the issue resolved,” Serna said. “I can’t close on the property. It’s holding up a $35 million project.”

Some board members suggested the developers building a Hilton Garden Inn and restaurant as part of the overall project fund the sewer line expansion.

“The city shouldn’t pay for sewer there,” board member Curtis Bonner said.

But Uhlhorn said the city had finalized agreements with developers.

“Everybody has opinions of the convention center one way or another — the cost-sharing agreement,” Uhlhorn said.

As part of an agreement, the city will fund construction of the convention center while San Antonio-based developer BC Lynd builds an attached 150-room Hilton Garden Inn.

Landowner Ezequiel Reyna, a Weslaco developer, also plans a restaurant as part of the project.

Board member Kevin Campbell suggested sharing the project’s cost.

“I don’t want to do this,” board Chairman Josh Fields said, referring to funding the project. “We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire.”

But Fields said he realized City Hall and WaterWorks basically operate together.

“We are all the city,” Fields said. “The project is what it is and needs to go forward.”