Uncertainty reigns as Weslaco bond vote approaches

Israel Coronado, left, listens as Weslaco Assistant City Manager Andrew Muñoz, right, answers questions about the proposed $10 million drainage improvement bond election. (Dina Arévalo | darevalo@mvtcnews.com)

Cataclysm hit Weslaco in mid-June 2018 as inches upon inches of rain deluged a city that was still attempting to recover from a catastrophic 2015 rainfall event.

According to the National Weather Service, so heavy was the onslaught in the Mid-Valley that the rain fell at a rate of 5 inches per hour. The Mid Valley Airport reported a whopping 11.36 inches in a span of just three hours.

In all, some 16-18 inches of rain inundated the Weslaco and Mercedes region. More than 2,500 homes were flooded, over 100 businesses were damaged and at least 2,500 vehicles were damaged, according to NWS data. And for days, entire streets and neighborhoods sat hidden between several feet of water.

It was almost a cliché — a perfect storm — the confluence of all the right variables at exactly the wrong time. An unprecedented rainfall event met a poorly maintained drainage system that was simultaneously a system not built to handle the drainage needs of the growing city which had blossomed around it.

The storm, and the damage it wreaked, led to a vociferous outcry from the community for change.

Just months later, Weslaco city leaders would issue $4 million in certificates of obligation to begin the arduous process of improving the city’s drainage system. Too, the city commission convened an ad hoc task force to study the issue, in tandem with civil engineering firm Halff Associates, which was tasked with developing new flood maps and models.

Now, nearly a year later, the commission has taken the work of that task force and has proposed a $10 million bond election to help fund five improvement projects — the first in a laundry list of short, intermediate and long term goals.

Yet, early voter turnout for the bond has been low. Just 236 voters cast their ballots in Weslaco during early voting. For a city with 19,975 registered voters, that turnout represents less than 2% of the electorate.

For some residents who attended an informational session regarding the bond election last week, the reason for the low turnout may be due to a sense of public distrust.

“People don’t have trust for these types of bonds and projects because, at the end of the day, 10 years later, we’ll find out somebody’s going to get arrested for this,” said Israel Coronado after Thursday’s session at Knapp Medical Conference Center.

Coronado, who founded the grassroots group “Make Weslaco Drain Again” shortly after last June’s flooding, spoke of a growing unease and distrust of public officials in the wake of the resignation of now-former District 4 Commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla, who pleaded guilty to federal programs bribery in relation to a larger scheme involving the city’s $38 million water treatment rehabilitation project.

“We have our own commissioner in District 4 arrested for bribery after a bond was passed,” Coronado said.

For other residents, concerns remain over how these particular projects were chosen, and why projects in their neighborhoods were not prioritized.

“We feel this should be placed on the top of the list, so my neighbors aren’t going to be happy,” said Emma Villarreal, whose neighborhood near Eighth Street and Oregon Avenue was identified as a potential future project.

Villarreal said her neighborhood was one of many damaged by 2015 floods and that city leaders had proposed — then, as now — to construct detention ponds to help mitigate the issue. Those ponds were never constructed.

“It seems like we’re starting from square one,” she said.

For Coronado, the five projects proposed by the bond election are a way to start addressing the problem, but he wondered if it would be enough of a start.

“It doesn’t address the (flood) we had in June, so it makes me skeptical on is this the right path to take?” Coronado said.

He added that the city’s drainage system had suffered from neglect prior to last June’s storms, a factor which may have exacerbated flooding. Since then, however, the city has worked to clear ditches and make other improvements. Coronado wondered if Halff Associates’ flood modeling accurately reflected the resultant improved drainage capacities in those areas.

“I believe that the flooding will be mitigated from what it was in 2018 now that it’s clean. How much so, that’s what we would need to see,” Coronado said.

June 2018’s flood event has been called a 500-year storm. The proposed projects are intended to mitigate damage of varying degrees during 10- and 50-year events, city officials explained.

Coronado urged voters to look at where the proposed projects will be completed before making their decisions. “Do we need something? Yes. Can this be a good start? Yes. Is this the solve-all? No,” he said.

Early voting concluded Tuesday, but Weslaco voters will have one more chance to make their voices heard — on Election Day, Saturday, May 4.

Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez urged residents to vote, to let city leaders know how their constituency wants them to proceed.

“The citizens will make a decision if they want to do it or not and we’re going to do what they tell us, but I would hate to see a bond referendum decided by 200 voters,” Perez said.