Ahead of early voting beginning Monday, The Monitor sat down to talk city issues with mayoral candidates Adrian Farias and David Suarez, as well as Letty Lopez and Fidel Peña, who are running for Districts 5 and 6, respectively.
District 5 and 6 incumbents Lupe Rivera and Joe Martinez did not respond to two weeks of repeated requests to answer any questions about the city.
Farias and Lopez spoke to The Monitor individually, while Suarez and Peña were interviewed together.
For the mayoral candidates: former Mayor Miguel Wise had a tradition of not voting during city commission meetings, except in unusual circumstances. Would you continue that or would you vote?
Farias: "I think I would want to voice my opinion... I plan to vote. I want to know that my voice does count in every situation."
Suarez: "It's a myth that the mayor cannot vote. I will make motions and I will vote and I will say where I stand. The people who put you there need to know where you stand and that you represent them."
One important staffing duty of the City Commission is hiring or firing the city manager. How would you evaluate current City Manager Leo Olivares' job performance?
Farias: "He's done some good. He's increased our fund balance, but there's always more good that can be done. My goal is to go in and work with everybody... I don't know him personally, so I'd like to get to know him more."
Suarez: "He's got an F in my scorecard right now. I'm very disappointed in the hospital issues. We have no business being involved in the hospital and suing there."
Lopez: "I'm thinking that right now the current city manager is lacking in management. We need to find somebody from within the community, if possible... He has been, I believe, sarcastic during meetings and I don't think that's professional... The City Commission is given the information by the city manager and based on his information they vote. And some of the decisions our City Commission is making I don't agree with."
Peña: "I feel he's been irresponsible with our money with what's been going on. I'm very upset with what's happened with the EDC and a lot of that is his philosophy. He was always very upset that the Weslaco EDC wasn't more like Pharr... I question his loyalties. His loyalty is not to the taxpayers, it's to the (commission) majority."
What would you pinpoint as the most important vote the City Commission has taken in the last year (ish) and would you have voted the same way?
Farias: "I think that construction risk-manager was a huge one, for the water plant but, from this past year, I don't know ... Everything, every vote they do there is very important. They've been able to reduce property taxes, they've been able to reduce water rates... (On the water plant) It was an emergency, as they say, so whatever speeds up the process, but we can't let things be an emergency any more."
Suarez: "I'm going to say the biggest vote -- it's more than a year, but it seems like yesterday -- is the vote on the trash... I think we gave away one of the biggest enterprise funds to a trash company, and if I had been there I would have been totally against it."
Lopez: "The most important is the water plant. It was something that was needed, but the way the city's doing things it seems like everything's an emergency... It's hard to say coulda, shoulda, woulda, but first of all, I would have gone out to get grants."
Peña: "The hospital votes (to oppose the sale of Knapp Medical Center to Universal Health Services in 2012). "I think UHS would have been better (than Prime Healthcare). That was one of the biggest votes the commission made, was to fight that. I think the city missed the mark. If I had been on the commission at the time I might have voted (to support) UHS. That was a sweetheart of a deal."
Weslaco has frequently used a construction manager-at-risk (CMAR) process -- which involves setting a price that cannot be exceeded, rather than bidding for a low price -- to complete all sizes of projects, from the water treatment plant to the Boys & Girls Club. The Economic Development Corp. has used it to build the Business & Event Center. What do you see as the pros and cons of a CMAR process, rather than a traditional design-bid-build, and would you continue to use it?
Farias: "I guess you would say the pro of it is that it takes some stress off the city ... I'm a budget guy, you know, I do a budget every month and I think the city has a budget. The people have to pay for it, so I want to bid every project ... I guess depending on the situation I'd have to evaluate."
Suarez: "I'm for bidding every contract out, regardless of if it's an emergency... I'm leaning to what Fidel said, that I'd rather bid it out traditionally... The only problem with CMAR is it tends to be pricier, even though you have a cap, because they push it up."
Lopez: "I would have to get a little more knowledgeable on the whole liability of that (CMAR) bidding process, but in our industry we always have to bid and be the most qualified and least expensive... I couldn't answer that question, to be honest. Water and wastewater plants are very specialized, versus a building, and I think CMAR minimizes (bidders)."
Peña: "When I was on the EDC board I opposed using it, because I didn't think it was good for competitive bidding... I've never liked CMAR, me personally, because I want competitive bidding. If we tell people 'This is what we're thinking we can spend,' we tip our hand from the very beginning... (CMAR) is quicker turnkey, and I understand that."
Much has been made of the cost of the city's water treatment plant and the subsequent water rate hikes to pay for it. What actions would you like to see the City Commission take now to move forward?
Farias: "I think right now is to make sure that any situation that is to occur we address right away ... Right now we've just got to continue to work together, work with the EDC, work with the Chamber of Commerce. (The water plant) decision has already been decided, so now it's just finding ways to reduce the rates."
Suarez: "I'd like to be able to research all the numbers on how the decision was made and if it was the best decision and present (those findings) to the public... I want to tell the public why we spent all this money and look at all the invoices where the money went. The City Commission can call for a committee to look into that... I think we need to be proactive and do a cost analysis (on future projects) and see if a CMAR or a traditional project is better, and be cautious."
Lopez: "I think we just need to look to see with the water rates that we have in place and the rate schedule that we'll be able to cover the debt."
Peña: "We need to pay our debt. We need to honor the contracts... And we need to do that as quickly and efficiently as possible. We need to look at funding to do that, because it does have an impact on people, especially the elderly."
When it comes to approving economic development incentives, what do you think are the most useful types of incentives and -- if limited resources forced you to choose -- would you rather see the city focus its efforts on downtown revitalization or expressway development?
Farias: "All play a big role. I want to work hand-in-hand with the EDC and hand-in-hand with the Chamber ... I like the fact that we're getting these new companies coming in, but I want to focus also on downtown... I guess depending on the project. These new companies coming in are a huge plus for everyone, because of jobs, but at the same time you can't forget where you came from. I couldn't really choose right now."
Suarez: "If we're going to require big businesses to come in and put in infrastructure, the city has to be in a position to give them some incentives ... I'd rather give a tax abatement first, because then you're not taking money out of your budget. It's a win/win situation... We have to balance (downtown vs. expressway). I'm going to go 50:50.
Lopez: "First I'd like to target small business owners. Definitely I'd like to focus on downtown ... And it would be nice to see some development north of the expressway... The big corporations will come because of our location, but we've gotten such bad publicity with the water rates... There have to be benchmarks (for incentives)."
Peña: "I'm not partial to any (types of incentives). I think you have to look at the business you're trying to attract. ... That (downtown vs. expressway) is a good question, because when I was on the EDC a lot of the emphasis was on downtown. You have to have downtown be viable. I would do about 75:25 (downtown:expressway). The expressway's going to grow on its own... That property is valuable, it's going to take care of itself. Do some incentives there, but focus on where people gather... Also, there's nothing north of the expressway. You don't want to disenfranchise the north."
Do you think it's in the city's interest to purchase any stake in the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge?
Farias: "Until commercial trucking increases in that area I don't think we should bother with that bridge right now."
Suarez: "I'm totally against it. We should not be in the bridge business and that one doesn't have the traffic to increase revenue."
Lopez: "No, I think that's a bad call. If you cross from Donna, there's no tourism and no attractions on the Mexican side ... For myself it's been at least 10 years since I've been over there to Mexico."
Peña: "No. I said that at the forum. It's a money pit. Donna has been trying to unload that on everybody... McAllen is in the business of international bridges. McAllen (looked at it) and said 'No thank you.' If McAllen doesn't want to buy it, why would we?"
Over the last three to four years, the city's fund balance has gone from being five digits in the negative to having more than $4 million in the bank. What do you attribute that to and are those policies you would continue?
Farias: "We've got to go in there and look at each plan. Sometimes things aren't released to the public ... As of right now, I wouldn't (know what contributed)."
Suarez: "I'm proud that we have a fund balance of (a high percentage) and I'm for improving that, but not at the expense of cutting services ... I think now we've cut too much on the parks staff... I want to look at department head salaries and administrative salaries and cut from the top."
Lopez: "I wouldn't go back and rehire everyone (the city cut), if that's what you're asking... I think I would still continue the policies (Olivares) has in place, but study them... I would like to see a detail of all the costs in our construction projects and the bidding process."
Peña: "I want to look at the numbers myself to verify if that's true... We still have a lot of debt and are they including the debt in that fund balance?"
How do you feel about proposed city annexations?
Farias:"It's an issue and it kind of goes back to our budget and seeing if we can do it. But at the same time Mercedes, Donna, Elsa - I think the whole Valley is growing and it's going to be a metropolitan area ... It's a matter of time. I think if we don't annex it, someone else is going to annex it. That needs to be brought to the people, that sooner or later we need to annex it ... I can't say yes and I can't say no because it's going to be a huge cost."
Suarez: "I don't think we're in any position to annex at this point in time because we can't take care of our boundaries. We saw this week we can't offer anything to them... We have dilapidated infrastructure within our boundaries, so I don't want to go out there. I don't want to annex because we say 'We haven't annexed anything in three years, so let's annex everything."
Lopez: "If we've already been providing services then they should be within the city limits, they should be annexed, but trying to annex all the way to Military Highway, that's like a 20-year plan... (I would support annexing) the properties that we're already providing city services to that are close to the city limits, yes, but if a private developer has developed something that's far north or south, then I would say it alll has to be within a timetable."
Peña: "I think the problem with the annexation now is it hasn't been studied properly. The areas they're studying now are requiring services we'd have to provide... I'm against (all the proposed) annexation... I'd have to look at the number, but I think we're stretched thin."
What do you think is Weslaco's greatest challenge and what is the City Commission's role in addressing it?
Farias: "Working together as one and, of course, infrastructure. Like, right now, with the water lines breaking in the last couple of days. That affected a lot of our businesses here in Weslaco... I know everyone talks about beautification of Weslaco and the parks and all, but we've got to worry about the infrastructure first."
Suarez: "It's public trust. I want to go in there and change the culture, give a little bit of a face-lift to City Hall. The commission now is more of a reactionary commission ... You will never hear me say 'I'm not going to talk.'... (Also) I'll go back to streets. Streets and lighting. I think we can make an impact on citizens if we start paving streets."
Lopez: "I guess the greatest challenge is getting this water plant finished, and that's just a matter of time, and then being able to service the community. I think what we need to do is start addressing the issues (like lines with lower water pressure) with the actual citizens, customers."
Peña: "Trust. I think the citizens have lost trust in city leaders... We've got to listen to them first. You don't throw public comment to the end (of commission meetings). And then you have to communicate well with people and help them understand that what they're suggesting isn't viable, but there has to be discussion. You don't call for question right after the discussion begins... Also, drainage in Las Brisas. In my district, that's the biggest issue."
What do you think is Weslaco's most under-utilized asset and what is the role of the City Commission in utilizing it?
Farias: "There's a lot of assets Weslaco does have. One thing I did see was slashing the budget for the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber of Commerce has always done very well in promoting Weslaco and bringing tourism ... I think right now working with the Chamber of Commerce is a huge plus... I would like to (restore that funding) but again, we've got to look at the budget and see what's available."
Suarez: "I agree (with Peña) that people are the most under-utilized asset. We have people who want to serve on boards and we don't appreciate them. We're suing them. When you sue them you antagonize them. We're pushing them away... (Also) I think the city can be more of a champion for STC."
Lopez: "We gave that asset away. That was our garbage pick-up. The commission needs to see what kind of contract we're in and see if it's feasible or not feasible and profitable to farm it out... Fixing the parks and emphasizing the Chamber of Commerce, so they could have the funds available like they did before. And having Onion Fest be a bigger attraction."
Peña: "Our biggest asset is our people. We've got people in the RV parks that we haven't involved in the city and who are from all over the country and have wisdom. We have people on the north side who have input."
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