San Benito searches for options to upgrade sewer system

SAN BENITO — The city might be cutting it close.

After months of debate, city officials continue to search for money to fund an $8.5 million sewer system upgrade stemming from a state order carrying a March 2023 deadline.

“It’s priority,” City Manager Manuel De La Rosa said yesterday.

In July, city commissioners voted down De La Rosa’s proposal to borrow the money.

At the time, commissioners argued the proposed bond issue would add six cents to the property tax rate of 72 cents per $100 of valuation.

“They are trying not to burden the taxpayers,” De La Rosa said of the city leaders.

But he has noted the city’s long-term debt stands at about $30 million.

Since that vote, officials have been asking state representatives and state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, to help in seeking grant money.

“They’ve had a lot of conversations,” De La Rosa said.

Yesterday, Louie Sanchez, Lucio’s spokesman, did not respond to an email requesting comment on the senator’s help in searching for grants.

“The city administration and city commissioners are both seeking options,” De La Rosa said. “There are not a lot of grants out there — that’s a reality. We’re open to any options available.”

The state order

The city’s concerns come as a result of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s 2012 order stemming from a series of sewage spills near the Arroyo Colorado totaling 49,000 gallons from November 2009 to January 2010.

In October 2012, the city entered into an agreement with TCEQ to participate in its Sanitary Sewer Overflow Initiative.

As part of the program, the agency agreed to waive severe fines and penalties if the city would upgrade its sewer system by March 2023.

Now, the clock continues to tick toward that deadline.

The deadline

“It is never not on the front of my mind,” De La Rosa said as he sat at a table in a City Hall office. “I’m committed to meeting obligations.”

De La Rosa said he plans to seek funding options until 2020.

“I feel I could wait a year, but I’ll give you two,” De La Rosa said. “I really think I’ve got to do something during the summer of 2020.”

At that time, a proposed bond issue might be back on the table, he said.

The schedule

De La Rosa plans to design the project during a nine-month period in 2021.

“It takes a while to get parts in — no one keeps them on the shelf,” he said. “There’s lead time. We’re talking six months sometimes.”

Then from 2021 to 2022, he plans to refurbish the six lift stations during a 15-month period.

De La Rosa admits his schedule cuts close to the deadline.

An emergency, such as a hurricane, could blow it off course.

“I’m giving myself a little cushion if something goes wrong,” De La Rosa said.

Already, he said commissioners have asked him to request the state consider granting the city an extension.

“If you make a compelling explanation, they may grant you an extension,” De La Rosa said. “But if it’s not compelling, the deadline will hold.”

Financing option

De La Rosa said financing options could include a public-private partnership.

Last week, Commissioners Rick Guerra and Tony Gonzales requested Harlingen developer Humberto Zamora present a proposal that could help the city finance the project to upgrade the lift stations.

“I wanted to know if he could help the city of San Benito,” Gonzales said. “He’s a builder. He was going to help the city fix the lift stations.”

As part of a nearly 90-minute presentation, Zamora proposed financing he said was available under a state program known as the Texas-Mexico Strategic Investment Commission.

The presentation marked the second time in nine months Zamora has proposed the program, which he said offered the city state sales tax revenue to fund projects such as the planned sewer system overhaul.

At the Texas Comptroller’s Office, spokesman Kevin Lyons said he was not aware of such a program.

Meanwhile, the state Secretary of State’s office and Gov. Greg Abbott’s office did not respond to messages requesting information about the program.

However, Zamora said he stands by his proposal to use the program to finance the city’s project.

“I’m using it and I’m doing very well,” said Zamora, who has financed several Harlingen-area federal construction projects over the years.

It is unclear whether the city will request Zamora finance the project.

“It is at the discretion of the city commission as to what the future of the proposal will be,” city spokeswoman Martha McClain stated.

Gonzales said he asked De La Rosa to research Zamora’s proposal.

“I told the city manager to make sure it’s legit,” Gonzales said.

De La Rosa said he has yet to research Zamora’s proposal.

“I will review a written proposal when I receive one,” De La Rosa stated.

“I will not speculate on a proposal that isn’t communicated in writing. The written document will provide me with information that will assist me in determining as to how to proceed with evaluating the proposal. Discussions are great, but proposals need to be submitted formally in writing so that the documentation creates a historical trail.”

Yesterday, Zamora did not respond to an email requesting comment on whether he will present a written proposal.