New thinking: Deputy city manager touts sustainable growth

May 27, 2019

Brownsville Deputy City Manager Helen Ramirez, who has extensive planning experience in the public and private sectors, wants the city to think differently about growth.

In the old days it was widely assumed that development, whichever form it took, was a good thing, though in fact unmanaged growth can actually be detrimental to a community, she said in an April 26 one-on-one interview. Achieving a balance of different types of growth should be the goal, said Ramirez, who has been on the job since March 4.

Toward that end, the city last month hired the Dallas-based consulting firm Verdunity to examine Brownsville’s land use, the first step in figuring out how to “grow smarter” in order to maintain a property tax and sales tax base adequate for maintaining the city’s existing infrastructure, she said.

“Before, you had urban planners going in one direction and transportation going in another direction,” Ramirez said. “What we learned quickly was that they complement each other as well as economic development.”

The results of Verdunity’s initial study, presented at an April 16 city commission meeting, show that 72 percent of the city’s revenue comes from residential land use, 19 percent from commercial and 5 percent from industrial land use, she said. Ideally, the three components would be more equally represented in order to give the city greater diversification of land use, Ramirez said.

“I think what most cities aspire to do is have a good balance of the three,” she said.

The study, titled “Creating a Fiscally Resilient Brownsville,” also shows that more than half the acreage inside the city limits is either vacant or agricultural, which produces no property or sales tax, even though roads and other infrastructure serve those areas, Ramirez said. Getting a handle on “the why” was part of the reason for the “For the Love of Brownsville” workshop hosted by the city’s planning and development on April 24, she said.

The workshop was an opportunity for the city to have the first of many discussions to come with developers, landowners and others to discover the obstacles to getting such properties developed in order to create revenue to help sustain infrastructure, Ramirez said

"Is there a way we can be proactive in getting property developed within the city limits?” she said. “We want to have those conversations with those stakeholders.”

The fact is that most cities don’t bring in enough revenue to take care of their infrastructure, Ramirez said. It’s important for Brownsville to take a look at these things in order to figure out how to stabilize the city fiscally — a top priority of the city manager’s office, she said.

City Manager Noel Bernal and the commission have made it a priority to really look at how we should grow the city and its future,” Ramirez said. “Not to grow for the sake of growing, but how to do we grow correctly, smarter, and how with that growth are we going to maintain our current infrastructure.”

The April 24 workshop included a discussion of short-term, mid-term and long-term measures to streamline the city’s permitting process, modify processes, update codes, augment personnel resources and shorten permitting wait times to encourage development, she said.

“Codes can be cumbersome, and codes can be streamlined and consolidated,” Ramirez said.

In the “long-term” category is an eventual rewrite of the city’s comprehensive plan, she said. The city’s most recent comprehensive plan, “Imagine Brownsville,” was done in 2009.

In the next few years we’ll be looking at that,” Ramirez said. “But we’ll be working a lot between now and the comprehensive plan rewrite, having many conversations with stakeholders, the community, small businesses, and prospects for bringing larger job creation, including industrial or other commercial tenants.”

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