San Benito mulls borrowing to fund sewer overhaul

SAN BENITO — For seven years, the city has faced a state mandate to upgrade its sewer system by 2023 or face severe penalties stemming from sewage spills.

Since 2017, city commissioners have searched for money to fund an $8 million project to renovate six sewer lift stations.

After months of planning, commissioners last year suddenly voted down a proposal to borrow $8 million through the sale of certificates of obligation to fund the project.

At the time, commissioners noted the bond issue would have boosted the city’s 72-cent property tax rate by six cents.

After the bond was taken off the table, city officials began hunting for grant money to fund the project.

Now, the city might push ahead with new plans to borrow money to fund the project.

In that case, taxpayers might be footing the bill.

“It’s frustrating,” City Commissioner Rick Guerra said yesterday of any tax hike. “It’s a burden.”

Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking toward the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s March 2023 deadline.

In October 2012, the city entered into an agreement with TCEQ to participate in its Sanitary Sewer Overflow Initiative program following a series of sewage spills near the Arroyo Colorado totaling 49,000 gallons from November 2009 to January 2010.

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

Earlier this week, City Commissioner Carol Lynn Sanchez stressed the urgency of funding the project.

“We do have our sewer system problem that’s going on right now,” Sanchez said. “We have to take the $8 million bond whether we want to or not. If we don’t do that, we’re facing tons of fines — hundreds of thousands of dollars of fines.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, City Manager Manuel De La Rosa, apparently referring to the state deadline, told Sanchez, “Time is almost up.”

Since he took office in late 2015, the project has been among De La Rosa’s top priorities.

Late last year, De La Rosa said he was planning to seek funding options until 2020.

At the time, De La Rosa said he planned to design the project during a nine-month period in 2021.

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

Yesterday, De La Rosa stated commissioners could reconsider a bond issue to fund the sewer system upgrade or seek a loan through the Texas Water Development Board.

Meanwhile, the city’s long-term debt, to be paid through 2032, currently stands at about $30 million.

“We’re definitely going to be looking into it,” Mayor Ben Gomez said, referring to funding options including a bond issue.

Since the state ordered the city to upgrade its sewer system in 2012, he said, past administrations failed to fund the project.

“They gave us a 10-year plan and nobody addressed it,” Gomez said. “We’ve got to address the issue no matter what we’ve got to do.”

Meanwhile, Commissioner Guerra, who opposed last year’s proposed bond issue, appears to have second thoughts about funding the sewer system overhaul.

“Time is running out,” Guerra said. “We can’t put it on the back burner anymore.”

For months, Guerra searched for grants to fund the project, requesting state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, and U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, help the city find grant money.

“I have reached out,” Guerra said. “It’s not coming through.”

Now, Guerra said he is ready to reconsider funding options including a bond issue that would come with a tax hike.

“We need to start really looking and figure out what we’re going to do,” he said. “As far as the lift stations, some need replacement. I hope people understand. I don’t want to lift taxes for the people.”