SAN BENITO — Residents here continue to pay high water rates.
The reason — to help pay off the debt on the water plant opened in 2009.
The city still owes part of a $6.5 million debt on the $17 million water plant shut down about three years ago.
And residents continue to pay high water rates.
In 2014, the city shut down the plant, filing a lawsuit against companies behind its construction, arguing it never operated efficiently.
Meanwhile, the city launched a $3 million project aimed at renovating its 90-year-old water plant, which twice shut down in the last seven months, cutting water to customers across town.
Now, many residents want to know why the city shut down the new water plant while pumping money into its old plant.
City commissioners continue to stand by their decision to shut down the new plant, certain they can add 20 more years to the old plant’s lifespan.
But they have declined comment on the decision, citing the lawsuit.
In 2014, officials shut down the water plant, arguing its membrane filtration system failed to properly operate.
“Once the pending lawsuit is resolved, the city hopes to be in a position to properly restore (the new water plant),” City Attorney Ricardo Morado said.
Orlando Cruz, a defendant in the lawsuit who served as the city’s longtime engineer who helped build the new water plant, opposes the decision to shut down the new water plant.
Meanwhile, officials plan to dip into a $12.6 million reserve account to fund the renovation of the plant built in 1927.
But Cruz estimates it would cost less than $1 million to install new membranes to make the new plant operational.
“It amazes me what they’re trying to do,” Cruz said, referring to city officials.
Cruz argued the city is wasting money on the old plant, which was planned to be phased out before being decommissioned.
“It’s a lot of money spent for no reason at all. You can ill-afford to shut down that (new) plant and rely on old grandpa downtown,” Cruz said, referring to the old water plant.
It is unclear how long it will take the city to complete its project to renovate the old water plant, city spokeswoman Martha McClain said.
On Tuesday, city commissioners agreed to delay part of the project until after summer, during which the plant produces about double the amount of water to meet the season’s high consumer demand.
“Judging from last night’s discussion, I don’t think there is any way to tell for certain,” McClain said in a statement, referring to the decision to delay part of the project. “It will depend on many factors ranging from weather conditions to parts availability and other factors unknown at this time. I would say that work will continue at a steady pace until it is completed. Some work is under way and some will be held until after the summer for the reasons mentioned last night.”
Meanwhile, taxpayers and utility customers continue to pay for the new plant.
The city owes $2.8 million in debt stemming from the sale of certificates of obligation used to build the “state-of-the-art” water plant, a $13 million sewer plant and a $1.6 million water tower.
The water plant’s shutdown is expected to lead to some deterioration of its pumps, pipes and electronics, Cruz said, referring to the new plant.
“Common sense tells you, the longer it remains idle, the more it will cost to re-start,” Cruz said.
Many residents are concerned the old plant could shut down again.
On Jan. 8, the water plant shut down, cutting off water across town and leading the city to use Harlingen water to serve customers.
In a report, consultant Lou Portillo told commissioners “freezing” temperatures created condensation which froze water in the plant’s air line, creating a leak that dropped the system’s water pressure.
Portillo recommended the city install heaters and insulation to protect equipment in case of cold temperatures.
The city has implemented Portillo’s recommendations to ensure freezing would not cause another shutdown, city spokeswoman McClain said.
In September 2016, the old water plant shut down after a waterline break caused a loss of pressure, leading the city to rely on Harlingen for water.