Occupation: Attorney at Law-Partner in Curtis and Boswell, LLP
Years in Community: Valley Native; 36 years in Harlingen
Community Involvement: Past Chairman of the Harlingen-San Benito United Way Budget and Allocations Committee; Past Chairman of the Harlingen Industrial Foundation; Past Vice-Chairman of the Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce; Past President of the Cameron County Bar Association; Former Cubmaster for Cub Scout Packs 23 and 206 (10 years); Former Asst. Scoutmaster Troop 206 (7 years); Past Council Commissioner and President of the Rio Grande Council, Boy Scouts of America, Steering Committee Member for the Adelante Con Camp Perry Capital Campaign, Past Board Member of St. Alban’s Day School; Past Vestry Member St. Alban’s Church; Mayor of Harlingen since 2007 and City Commissioner from 1998-2007; Past President of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council and Past Chairman of the Harlingen-San Benito Metropolitan Planning Organization; Member of the Harlingen Rotary Club
Family: Married 35 years to Anita Boswell (Banker); Father of Megan, Thomas and Carrie (All Harlingen Cardinals and University graduates)
Question 1: How would you describe the city’s current financial situation, including the property tax rate, assessment levels, sales tax receipts and overall development and direction of the city?
The City is in excellent financial condition. We ended the last fiscal year with a strong $17.5 million in fund balance representing 135 days of operating reserves. We have increased sales tax revenue and in the last 3 years saw an unprecedented 23 consecutive months of increased retail sales taxes.
Our tax rate of 59 cents is the lowest tax rate of almost every large city in the Valley by almost 20% and we haven’t raised our tax rate in 13 years. Standard and Poors reaffirmed the City’s credit rating at a strong AA- and credited the City with strong management, good financial policies and practices and strong budgetary performance and operating surpluses.
Question 2: Specifically what are the city’s short-term and long-term infrastructure needs and how should city officials address these matters, specifically financially?
Streets and drainage are the top infrastructure priorities. Other projects seem to get more attention, but in the last 10 years we have invested $13.4 million dollar in drainage projects in Harlingen. And we are hoping to invest another $10 million dollars more over the next 3 to 4 years.
The past and future projects have been and will be achieved through a combination of grant funding obtained plus city matching funds from savings in our general fund. Likewise, in 2018 we used $3.3 million dollars to rehab 32 roadways through-out the City and in the coming year the City will rehab another 26 streets at a cost of another $2 million. These funds are budgeted from the general fund and the street assessment fee. Major projects like the $7.3 million Spur 54 project will be funded by TXDOT funding through our MPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization.)
Question 3: By the time this election is over, the Convention will likely have had its Grand Opening. What are your opinions about the convention center? What concerns, if any, do you have about the Convention Center and its future finances?
Seeing is believing. And the over 500 people who attended the State of the City Report were overwhelmingly positive in their reaction to the City’s new Convention Center. Now that it is open for business and already being used by businesses and for social occasions alike, I am more convinced than ever that the Convention Center is going to sell itself.
Even UTRGV has scheduled a commencement (graduation) ceremony at the centrally located venue. Unlike our parks, ball fields and trails which are also necessary amenities for a City, the Convention Center has the ability to be self-sustaining. By partnering with the developer to operate the Convention Center and split profits and losses, we have an experienced hospitality business with an incentive to operate the property efficiently.
Question 4: Downtown property owners are facing better than 50 percent property assessment increases, likely leading to higher taxes. What do you think about these assessments and can the city do anything about this situation and what is the impact as the renovations on the Baxter Building are completed?
A vibrant Downtown is vital to our City. And we have to support it. Most people understand that appraised values of property are performed independently by the Cameron County Appraisal District which appraises values of all properties throughout the County. What drives property values up or down is when other similar properties in the same area sell and establish a market rate.
These are called “comparables.” The downtown property owners can contest the new appraisals by showing why the comparables used by the Appraisal District are really different or not appropriate comparisons. And I encourage them to exercise their right to protest the new values if they believe they are wrong.
In the meantime, Commissioner Uhlhorn and I have asked the City Staff to look at whether there might be some way to provide some form of help through the Downtown Improvement District which was created by ordinance and state statutes.
We have spent over 30 years rebuilding our downtown and now is no time to take any steps back. So we will find a way to help support it. The Appraisal District confirmed that the Baxter Building has not played any part in this issue.
Question 5: The outlook of malls around the country is dark and gloomy and Valle Vista has seen its share of changing and leaving anchor stores during the past couple of years. What can and should the city do to save Valle Vista or should any efforts by the city be made to save it occur at all?
The first big step in the revitalization of Valle Vista Mall has already occurred. Valle Vista has a new owner — Kohan Retail Investment Group. Kohan Retail owns over 20 malls throughout the country. And they have many new ideas for Valle Vista.
Valle Vista will get the attention it deserves because the Kohan Retail has invested its own money in the purchase and borrowed very little. By contrast, the former owner, Washington Prime Group stated in its 2017 Third Quarter Results posted online that in October 2017, it “handed the lender back the keys to Valle Vista Mall whereby a $40 million mortgage obligation was extinguished.” It appears the prior owner had too much debt on the mall.
Kohan Retail instead purchased the mall for $12.5 million and only a small amount of that purchase price is debt. This allows it much more flexibility in securing new tenants and improving the mall. I’m optimistic that they will be successful but it will take a little time.
The City has offered to work with Kohan Retail. In the meantime, as a community, let’s remember that there are about 50 businesses still operating at Valle Vista. Let’s give them the support they need and shop Valle Vista Mall.
Question 6: Are there any issues you believe are key to Harlingen, that haven’t been asked here? How would you address them?
We have a lot of opportunities. The first of which is to continue to strengthen our partnership with UTRGV and the UTRGV School of Medicine. The Medical School now has a 75-acre footprint in our City with the Institute of Neurosciences scheduled to break ground next year.
This has been and will continue to be a signature partnership for Harlingen. Our airport is on a roll with two new airlines and more than $20 million in infrastructure development. We look forward to creating lots of new jobs at the over 400 acres of land adjacent to the airport.
Question 7: Why should voters choose you in this election?
I love Harlingen and believe it is a truly wonderful city with wonderful people. I have been and remain doggedly determined to see our city grow and progress.
We must remain focused on building a City where our children and their children can get a good education, find careers, build businesses and professional practices and dream even bigger dreams for this great city. That vision, determination and proven record of achievement best qualifies me to be Mayor and I humbly ask my fellow citizens for their vote.