Contenders crowd San Benito election

SAN BENITO — Four of the city’s five elected positions are up for grabs in an election that could change the City Commission’s balance of power as officials face tough decisions that could include voting on a tax or water rate hike.

Earlier this week, city commissioners called the May 2 election, which has already led three incumbents and five challengers to file for candidacy.

Meanwhile, they contracted the Cameron County Elections Department to run the election.

Wednesday, Elections Administrator Remi Garza estimated the city’s cost at $23,210.

Mayor’s race

So far in the race for mayor, incumbent Ben Gomez, a parent educator with the San Benito school district, faces former Mayor Celeste Sanchez, a retired assistant superintendent who Gomez defeated three years ago.

Earlier this month, the mayor’s race crowded when Commissioner Rick Guerra resigned his Place 3 post to run for the city’s highest elected position.

Wednesday, Steve Rodriguez, a trucking company owner, filed to run for the Place 3 seat, where Guerra’s resignation left a one-year unexpired term.

In 2018, Guerra, a retired Harlingen firefighter, defeated Rodriguez, who had first won election in 2015.

Commission races

In the hotly contested race for the commission’s Place 2 seat, incumbent Rene Villafranco, an official with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement who first won election in 2009, faces Daniel Cortez, a retired Harlingen police officer, and Deborah Ann Morales, vice president of Texas Funeral Associates.

So far, Commissioner Tony Gonzales, a retired postal worker, is running unopposed for the Place 1 seat he’s held since 2009.

The election’s filing deadline is Feb. 14.

Balance of power

The election could change the commission’s balance of power.

Now, Gomez and Villafranco, along with Commissioner Carol Lynn Sanchez, form the board’s majority, often casting the same votes.

Meanwhile, Gonzales and Guerra tend to form the commission’s minority.

Tax or water rate hike?

The election’s winners could face a decision on increasing the city’s property tax or a water rate hike.

For nearly 10 years, a multimillion-dollar sewer system overhaul has loomed over this town that stands as one of Texas’ poorest cities.

In October 2012, the city entered into an agreement with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality 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.

Last year, commissioners voted to fund the first phase of a state-mandated sewer system overhaul carrying a projected $8.2 million price tag.

On a 3-1 vote, with Gonzales casting the lone dissenting vote, they decided to borrow $1.5 million through the sale of certificates of obligation to fund the planning and design phase of the project to rebuild six sewer lift stations.

As they planned to finance the $1.5 million bond sale, officials set aside $65,000 from the San Benito Economic Development Corporation and $17,230 in federal Community Development Block Grant money to offset any increase in the city’s property tax rate of 72 cents per $100 valuation or a hike in one of the Rio Grande Valley’s highest water rates.

Later this year, officials are expected to call for a vote on a proposed $6.7 million bond issue to fund the lift stations’ construction.

According to financial advisor Don Gonzalez’s service schedule, the proposed $6.7 million bond issue could drive up taxes about 3 cents.

During last year’s meetings, Gonzalez also discussed a possible water rate hike.

Now, the city’s monthly residential water rate stands at $20.59 for up to 2,000 gallons for homes with 5/8-inch meters while its sewer rate is set at $29.09 for up to 2,000 gallons.

Water plant

Meanwhile, many residents are calling on officials to reopen the city’s $17 million water plant, which they shut down in 2014, filing a lawsuit against companies involved in its construction.

At City Hall, City Manager Manuel De La Rosa has scrapped the project’s timetable.

In early 2019, De La Rosa was planning to re-open the plant between Aug. 24 and Dec. 21.

Then late last year, he scratched those plans.

About five years after the plant opened in 2009, a previous commission shut it down following “malfunctions” in 2014.

Since then, officials have pumped more than $1 million into the city’s 92-year-old plant to turn it into the main water source.

For about two years, officials have tapped into a lawsuit settlement to help fund the plant’s restoration.

In December 2017, the city won the settlement that included $1.87 million in cash and $3.1 million worth of services from Evoqua Water Technologies.

As part of the settlement, Evoqua, formerly Siemens, agreed to perform $3.1 million in services, including conducting a pilot study and installing equipment needed to operate the plant.

For decades, officials planned to phase out and shut down the city’s old Stenger Street water plant built in 1927.

But they’ve continued to upgrade the old plant after it ran into big problems.

In September 2016 and January 2018, the old plant temporarily shut down, cutting water service across town.

As part of an agreement, Harlingen temporarily provided water to the city’s homes and businesses.