SAN BENITO — Street repairs and the sewer system’s state-ordered multimillion-dollar overhaul stand as some of the city’s biggest challenges.
That’s what city commission candidates running in the May 2 election said at a forum this past week.
Eight candidates running in four commission races and two mayoral hopefuls squared off at the Lone Star Inn’s Las Palmas Event Center on Thursday night for the forum sponsored by the San Benito Chamber of Commerce and the San Benito News.
Mayor Ben Gomez was absent.
San Benito News Editor David Lopez served as the forum’s moderator, posing questions to the candidates.
Hot topics included economic development, revitalization, the reopening of the city’s newest water plant and accessibility to residents and the news media.
Some candidates pointed to the state-ordered sewer system upgrade likely to lead commissioners this year to consider passing a $6.7 million bond issue that could boost property taxes or water rates.
“We’ve got three years left to fix them and each costs about $1 million,” Commissioner Tony Gonzales, running for re-election to the Place 1 seat he’s held since 2009, said, referring to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s March 2023 deadline to upgrade six sewer lift stations.
Former Commissioner Rick Guerra, who resigned his Place 3 seat to run for mayor, said each lift station will take six to nine months to renovate.
Joe Rodriguez, running for the commission’s Place 3 seat, said the city faces fines of $20,000 per day if it fails to overhaul the sewer system by the state’s deadline.
“The City Commission for years has kicked the can down the road,” he said, referring to previous commissions’ failure to launch the sewer system overhaul stemming from sewer spills nearly 10 years ago.
Poor street conditions
For decades, residents have called the city’s poor street conditions one of its biggest challenges.
“Without those accommodations we cannot attract business, we cannot support business,” former Mayor Celeste Sanchez, who’s running for the seat she lost to Gomez three years ago, said.
Every year, the city sets aside about $450,000 for street repairs, Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez proposed hiring a grant writer to apply for grants to help fund street projects.
Rene Garcia, running for the Place 1 seat, questioned the quality of materials used to pave streets.
“What are we building our streets with?” he asked. “I’m talking about materials. Are we using the right materials?”
Meanwhile, Deborah Ann Morales, running for the Place 2 seat, questioned the quality of the city’s street repairs.
“I look at the patch work,” she said. “If you’re going to do it, do it right.”
Candidates called economic development one of the city’s most pressing challenges.
Pedro Galvan, running for the Place 3 seat’s one-year unexpired term, proposed developing the resaca into a waterfront attraction.
“We have a beautiful waterway,” he said.
Much of the focus turned to the downtown area.
“I remember growing up in San Benito and it was bustling with business,” Daniel Cortez, running for the commission’s Place 2 seat, said. “Now there are empty buildings shuttered up.”
Morales called on residents to shop at the city’s new businesses.
“We have a lot of small businesses that have come in,” she said. “We need to support them.”
Former Commissioner Steve Rodriguez, who’s running for the Place 3 seat he lost to Guerra two years ago, called on residents to shop locally to help boost sales tax revenue.
“Shop San Benito,” he said. “Shop local so our tax dollars stay here.”
Gonzales said four businessmen own most of the city’s rows of downtown buildings, where rents are running too high.
“These eyesores exist at every corner,” Garcia said.
Morales called on city officials to get tougher on the owners of abandoned buildings.
“We need to start holding these landowners accountable and enforce the ordinance,” she said.
Sanchez pointed to a city-owned building on Travis Street as overdue for demolition.
“The city has to set the example if we’re going to hold landowners accountable,” she said.
Meanwhile, Sanchez called the county-owned building on Sam Houston Boulevard a danger.
“It’s a hazard to our community,” she said.
Guerra said there are about 200 abandoned homes in the city.
“We have to do something about those,” he said.
Galvan proposed razing the vacant homes and helping their owners rebuild to put the properties back on the tax rolls.
But Guerra described more extensive problems.
“Not just downtown but the whole city needs to be upgraded,” he said.
Reopening water plant
Some candidates called for the reopening of the city’s $17 million water plant, which a previous commission closed in 2014 before filing a lawsuit claiming the facility didn’t operate properly since it opened about 10 years ago.
“We have a water plant inoperable for several years. It’s time to fix the plant,” Garcia said. “The biggest issue is safe drinking water.”
Galvan described the city’s water produced by its 93-year-old water plant as “kind of bad.”
“We’ve got to do something about the (new) water plant,” he said. “It’s your tax dollars.”
Meanwhile, Joe Rodriguez called for the first rate study in years, noting residents struggle with some of the highest water rates in the Rio Grande Valley.
Candidates vowed to become accessible to residents and the news media.
“I’m always accessible. That’s very, very important,” Steve Rodriguez said, referring to residents. “You should always answer your phone. Always listen to your citizens. We are their voice.”
Guerra said elected officials stand accountable to residents who voted them into office.
“I remember the people elected me,” he said. “The seat is of the people and for the people.”
Cortez vowed to hold town hall meetings.
“I’d rather talk to the person,” he said. “I’d rather talk to you in person, face-to-face.”
Morales said she would “reach out to media.”
Meanwhile, Joe Rodriguez said he would use his website to request residents’ input while offering city updates.