HARLINGEN — The Port of Harlingen Authority board responded sharply yesterday to criticism of reinstating a port tax, saying members tried to do the right thing 20 years ago by eliminating the levy.

Responding to a question from Harlingen resident Juan Ortega, who asked why the tax lapsed in 1997, board Chairman Alan Johnson said if he had to decide today he probably would reconsider.

“It was discontinued because we had enough money in our treasury, we had enough money in the bank to carry us through,” Johnson responded. “We had gone through the entire port, we had remodeled, we had redone and rebuilt our roads, rebuilt the docks after the flood, rebuilt other docks and at that point it seemed pointless to continue to tax the constituency when we really didn’t need the money.

“Now, all things being considered and knowing what we’re doing today, we probably should not have done that,” he added.

The port tax would be 3 cents on $100 valuation of property for residents of the Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District, the Rio Hondo Independent School District and southern Willacy County. On a $100,000 home, the annual levy would be $30.

Growth spurt

Johnson and other board members said at a meeting yesterday that years of slow growth at the port facility have suddenly seen an upswing in port business and the facility needs the estimated $1 million a year the tax would provide.

“Last year our net operating income was $160,000 — a year,” Johnson said. “That’s our bottom line income after all expenses, all the tariffs, all the rents and leases that we collect.”

Johnson said there are just four employees working at the port and that operationally it was a “pretty lean ship — I don’t think we can lean it down anymore.”

A grassroots group opposed to the tax, established on Facebook as Citizens Against Port of Harlingen Tax Increase, opposes the reintroduction of the levy and hopes to convince the Cameron County Commissioners Court to vote it down.

Operational issues

The Port of Harlingen sits on the banks of the Arroyo Colorado some 25 miles upstream from the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Ocean-going barges bring in gas, diesel, sand, cement and fertilizer, and haul out cotton, grain and sugar.

These barges have a draft of about nine feet and the arroyo must be maintained at an authorized depth of 12 feet. Yet while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has responsibility for dredging the channel, the port’s turning basin is another story.

For example, Johnson said, the heavy rains which occurred in June sent the Arroyo Colorado surging above its banks, reaching 24 feet on the flood gauge, inundated docks at the port and leaving the facility with about two feet of silt which settled in the turning basin.

The port, he said, is responsible for dredging the basin and it can cost as much as $200,000 to re-establish the proper depth.

“You do that two or three times a year when you’ve got floodwaters coming down, it starts chewing into your budget,” he said.

$25 million question

Johnson said a large part of the funding issue for the port is related to a study officials paid for a few years ago. It found that to put the port facilities on the best possible footing, it would cost $25 million.

“Well, quick math will tell you that with $160,000 net operating income, how many bonds can you pass to pay that note off if you’ve got to pass $25 million worth of bonds?” he asked. “I’m a retired banker. I can tell you, I’d never take that deal — ever.

“So we’ve got to go back to the constituency (taxpayers) for a period of time,” he added.

Fuel for Mexico

Board members also addressed the claim by tax protesters that the reinstated levy would merely serve to subsidize diesel and gas which is being refined in Corpus Christi and shipped through the port to Mexico.

They conceded these exports will mean $200,000 annually to the port, but said they were merely serving to offset shortages which Mexican refineries could easily fill in the future.

Port Director Walker Smith said recently his facility has averaged sending about 7.5 million gallons of diesel to Mexico a month this year, and moved 9.9 million gallons of diesel south in June alone.

“The Mexican fuel coming in here is an aberration,” Johnson said. “Anybody who’s lived on the border more than two weeks knows that Mexico changes its underwear more than once, and as soon as they decide they can generate and process their own oil, this is going to stop, it’s going to go away. But we’re making hay out of it right now because it’s really helping us with our income.”

The port authority board’s legal counsel, Jerry Stapleton, said the port’s issues are part of a broader economic portrait important not just to the Valley but to the nation.

“This is a bigger picture than just Harlingen,” Stapleton said. “This is nationwide commerce and international commerce and these waterways were set up 300 years ago to allow the country to build and progress. To look at it as not-in-my-backyard, or we don’t want any part of this, is very provincial and short-sighted.”

Port of Harlingen facts

• Created in 1926.

• The second-largest port in Cameron County after the Port of Brownsville

• Sited on more than 2,000 acres of land with 650 feet of dry cargo wharf, 100 feet of dry bulk wharf and five docks.

• Located on the Arroyo Colorado, the port facilitates trade of bulk and liquid cargo as well as petroleum in Texas, Louisiana and Mexico.

Source: Port of Harlingen