SAN BENITO — Pay now — or face even bigger fines.
Since 2012, city leaders have been staring at a multimillion-dollar project to upgrade the aging sewer system.
As part of an agreement, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has given the city until March 2023 to complete the project or face severe fines and penalties for a series of sewage spills that occurred back in 2009 and 2010.
For more than a year, city commissioners have battled over an $8.4 million project to upgrade the aging sewer system.
As part of City Manager Manuel De La Rosa’s plan, the city would borrow the money through the sale of certificates of obligation.
Last year, a majority appeared to support the finance plan — until it came time to vote.
Then, suddenly, commissioners voted down the proposed bond issue, warning it would force a 6-cent property tax increase.
Instead, commissioners did not opt to search for grants to fund the project— but the state nor federal agencies were handing out money.
Later today, the proposed bond issue comes back for a vote.
This time, there appears to be a clear majority supporting De La Rosa’s finance plan — but the margin is as close as they come.
While Mayor Ben Gomez and Commissioners Rene Villafranco and Carol Lynn Sanchez appear to support the plan, Commissioners Tony Gonzales and Rick Guerra oppose it.
Monrday, Gomez asked commissioners to rally around the finance plan to rebuild six sewer lift stations.
This time, borrowing the money is not expected to force a property tax increase, he said.
“It’s very important,” Gomez said yesterday during a telephone interview. “This thing’s been going on for a long time. We need to get this straightened out. It’s a hard decision. We need to make the right decision for the city. We need to stick together and make the right decision.”
Meanwhile, Sanchez warned the city could face hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines if it fails to complete the project by the state’s March 2023 deadline.
“It is completely necessary. At this point, waiting is not an option,” Sanchez stated. “This has been put on the back-burner for years. We are running out of time and must get this bond to ensure our citizens are not affected even worse with extreme fines.”
When he brought back the proposed project to the table earlier this month, De La Rosa told commissioners borrowing the money could lead to a 2-cent increase in the city’s 72-cent property tax rate and a 3-cent hike in one of the Valley’s highest water rates.
However, San Benito Economic Development Corporation board’s decision to earmark $65,000 toward the project reduced a proposed tax and water rate hike.
The year before, the EDC’s decision against funding part of a similar project might have been a factor in commissioners’ decision to vote down the bond issue after months of planning.
“I’m happy the majority also support getting some relief from our EDC,” Sanchez stated. “It’s great to see us working together to ensure our citizens don’t take such a large hit.”
As part of an agreement, De La Rosa told EDC members he would tap about $40,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant money and make budget cuts to eliminate a tax increase.
Guerra could not be reached for comment.
However, Gonzales and Guerra continue to oppose the proposed bond issue.
Monday, Gonzales said De La Rosa should consider using sales tax revenue rather than risk a tax hike to help fund the project.
“It’s his job to look for money,” Gonzales said.
Still, Gonzales said the city has to undertake the project.
“We got a lot of lift stations that need to be fixed,” he said. “If TCEQ fines us, it’s going to be worse.”
How we got here
For nearly 10 years, the multimillion-dollar sewer overhaul has loomed over the city.
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 an agreement, the state waived penalties, ordering the city to upgrade its sewer system by March 2023 or face severe fines and corrective action.