County, Pharr at odds over colonia designation

PHARR — A miscommunication between Hidalgo County Precinct 2 and a local nonprofit group inadvertently pitted the city of Pharr against the county.

The issue stems from Proyecto Azteca’s desire to help people living in some of the oldest parts of Pharr improve their housing conditions. And at the center if it all is the word “colonia” and all that it has come to represent.

In a nutshell, Proyecto Azteca, whose mission is to improve housing conditions for people living in the Rio Grande Valley, wanted to use funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for improvements within the heart of the city.

But the funds come with a caveat: the money can only be used to help homes within a colonia as designated by either the Texas Secretary of State or the county. And because the state will no longer designate any area as a colonia, it would fall on the county to do so. So Proyecto Azteca, which had previously received community development grant money from the city of Pharr to rebuild two homes in that specific area, went directly to the county.

It’s unclear if the nonprofit spoke to anyone in the city of Pharr, but when word got out Tuesday that the county commissioners had approved a measure to designate a portion of Pharr’s downtown area a colonia, city officials were taken aback.

“It was news to (us),” Pharr City Manager Juan Guerra said of himself and several elected officials, including Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez.

It appears a high-level city official called the county moments after the measure passed, which prompted commissioners to rescind the item during that same meeting. And in a quest to get to the bottom of the issue, City Clerk Hilda Pedraza submitted a public information request to the county on Wednesday that requested any form of communication between the city and Precinct 2 regarding the project.

Hidalgo County Precinct 2 Commissioner Eddie Cantu said the only communication his office had was with Proyecto Azteca. He attributed the miscommunication to the relationship between the nonprofit and the city.

“We were under the impression that Proyecto Azteca had reached out, and we didn’t see anything negative coming out of this designation because USDA informed us that only something positive would come from this,” Cantu said.

The designation would not affect property values and the only risk it comes with is the negative connotation, he added.

“The county was only tasked with providing the letter,” he said about the designation. “So in our conversations with Proyecto Azteca, they led us to believe they were talking to Pharr. Because we felt it was something positive, we didn’t think we needed to verify that.”

Still, Guerra believes Cantu’s office failed to do its due diligence, and worried about residents’ take on the issue.

Pharr leaders are wary about designating any portion of their city a colonia, Guerra said. For decades, they’ve been working on improving infrastructure and providing other crucial services for residents.

Today, there are no longer any colonias within the city, Guerra said. The last of their kind was seen about two decades ago, when Pharr annexed Las Milpas.

Proyecto Azteca, which could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon, is scheduled to meet with Pharr officials today. Guerra, however, said the city is disappointed neither Cantu nor his staff will attend the meeting.

“This is something Precinct 2 created, and I think they need to be professionals and mature… and see how something like this could take place,” he said.

For his part, Cantu said he won’t be in town today and believes the city will be better served if it first communicates with the nonprofit which is leading the effort.

“My office set up the meeting so that Proyecto Azteca could meet with them. We’re just a channel,” he said. “This isn’t for the precinct. This is Proyecto Azteca. … The best way for them to understand is to speak with them, and I would recommend they speak to USDA.”

Pharr officials, obviously, feel otherwise.

“We have a great relationship with the county and Precinct 2, and we’d like to maintain that,” Guerra said. “And part of that (comes) through communication and proper dialogue.”

nlopez@themonitor.com