By FERNANDO DEL VALLE
SAN BENITO — Grants can be hard to land.
But that’s not stopping the city from searching for grant money to fund a multimillion-dollar sewer system upgrade.
Earlier this month, city commissioners voted down a proposal to borrow as much as $12.5 million through the sale of certificates of obligation to fund the $8 million overhaul of six sewer lift stations.
But the city still needs a big chunk of cash to fund the project stemming from a state mandate.
As part of an agreement, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has given the city until March 2023 to refurbish the lift stations or face severe fines and penalties.
In a July 17 meeting, commissioners postponed the issuance of bonds to determine whether state and federal representatives could help the city seek grant funding, City Manager Manuel De La Rosa stated Monday.
“The delay in the issuance of the certificates of obligation will allow the city’s elected officials and city administration to continue seeking grants,” De La Rosa stated.
Mayor Ben Gomez and City Commissioner Rick Guerra are requesting state and federal representatives help them with grants to fund the upgrades, city spokeswoman Martha McClain stated yesterday.
According to McClain, Gomez and Guerra have contacted the offices of representatives including state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville; U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville; and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
“Some of the city’s elected officials have met with state and federal representatives to discuss the availability of grants to address the city’s aging public infrastructure,” De La Rosa stated.
Yesterday, Gomez, Guerra and Commissioners Rene Villafranco, Tony Gonzales and Carol Lynn Sanchez did not respond to messages requesting comment.
Meanwhile, the offices of Lucio, Vela and Cruz did not immediately respond to questions regarding the city’s ability to land grants.
Questions surround commissioners’ decision to scrap the bond issue.
Closed session question
During the July 17 meeting, commissioners did not discuss their decision to scrap plans for the bond issue.
Instead, Gomez requested commissioners meet in closed session to discuss the matter.
Then, City Attorney Ricardo Morado told Gomez commissioners could meet in closed session if they had a legal question regarding the bond issue.
In response, Gomez told Morado he had a legal question.
Questions have arisen as to whether the commission could legally meet in closed session to discuss a matter such as a bond issue.
Catherine Robb, an attorney with the Haynes and Boone law firm in Austin, said commissioners could probably meet in closed session to discuss the matter because the city’s meeting agendas allow commissioners to meet with their attorney to discuss legal issues.
“That’s a sticky issue,” Robb, an attorney working with the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, said in an interview Tuesday. “If it was a legal question, they probably could (meet in closed session) … if it was an actual legal issue.”
Money still needed
Commissioners voted down the proposed bond issue after months of planning.
Of the proposed $12.5 million bond issue, $8 million was earmarked to upgrade the six lift stations.
Meanwhile, $2.7 million would have funded the replacement of the leaking water main running along Business 77 from FM 510 to nearly San Benito’s northern city-limit line.
Another $2 million would have funded street repairs.
To pay off its debt, the bond issue would have forced the city to add 6 cents to its property tax rate of 72 cents per $100 valuation.
Meanwhile, the city’s long-term debt, to be paid through 2032, currently stands at about $30 million.
As commissioners planned the bond issue, Don Gonzalez, the city’s financial advisor with the Estrada Hinojosa Co. in San Antonio, said he expected to close the bond sale in August.
Gonzalez added interest rates were expected to climb.
Now, the clock is ticking.
It is unclear how long the project to upgrade the six lift stations would take.
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 the program, the agency agreed to waive severe fines and penalties if the city would upgrade its sewer system.
“The city of San Benito has made continual progress in complying with the terms of the Sanitary Sewer Overflow Agreement,” agency spokesman Brian McGovern stated Wednesday.
The city faces severe fines and penalties if it fails to comply with the order.
Specific details regarding such fines and penalties are unknown.
“When violations are serious enough to warrant formal enforcement action, the TCEQ is authorized to enforce correction of the violations and to seek penalties to deter future noncompliance,” McGovern stated.