Voters in Weslaco and Donna weren’t choosing representatives on their respective city commissions this May, but they were tasked with making their voices heard on two important issues — a bond election in one city, and charter amendments in the other.
Despite low voter turnout, the city of Weslaco will soon be able to move forward with a series of drainage improvement projects thanks to the passage of a $10 million bond election Saturday.
Only 235 people cast ballots during the eight days of early voting. An additional 229 voters came out on Election Day, Saturday, May 4.
The bond proposal passed with 278 votes for, to 186 votes against.
With the bond’s passage, officials will now be able to move forward on the first five projects in a laundry list of short, intermediate and long term goals.
“I think it’s great news for the citizens,” Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez said Saturday evening after learning of the bond’s passage.
“This will be the second step in addressing these drainage issues in Weslaco. We’ve got a lot of steps still to go,” he said.
The project sites include: Westgate Drive and Sugar Cane Drive, Los Torritos Street and North Kansas Avenue, South Texas Boulevard and East 18th Street, Pleasantview Drive and 11th Street, and South International Boulevard and Business 83.
The Westgate and Sugar Cane Project would include the creation of a 10-acre detention pond near Cleckler-Heald Elementary School.
The Los Torritos project would create a drainage system that would funnel storm water to a 30-acre detention pond at Mayor Pablo Peña Park.
The Texas Boulevard and 18th Street project would involve the creation of a 5-acre detention pond, the widening of a canal located at Mile 5 1/2 Road West, and increasing the size of the culverts beneath Texas Boulevard at Trails End Drive.
The Pleasantview Drive project would create a new storm drain system near Weslaco East High School that would funnel runoff toward an existing canal on East 18th Street.
Finally, the fifth project would widen culverts in a drainage canal by South Pleasantview Drive and Business 83.
City officials have acknowledged that $10 million won’t be enough to fund the entirety of the five projects, or the additional improvement needs identified by an ad hoc committee commissioned after last June’s flood, the Citizens Drainage Task Force.
They hope to be able to secure additional funding via state or federal grants, but the process to receive approval for such funding remains years away.
“We’re looking at hoping to get grants and doing work in-house,” Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez said during an informational session regarding the bond election late last month.
Since last year, the city has purchased heavy equipment, such as a tractor, that will allow it to offset some costs by having city staff complete some of the projects.
Drainage issues are becoming a larger issue for municipalities across the state, Perez said.
“The infrastructure that our forefathers put in place worked fine back 50, 60 years ago, but they don’t work fine today,” he said. “You can see that most cities across Texas were planning for a 10-15 year flood. And then they went to 25, and now we’re going to 50.”
After spending nearly four decades in city administration, Perez said he has seen the number of severe storms — and how floodwaters tax public infrastructure — increase.
“For about 42 years I had three (floods),” Perez said. “In the last four years, we’ve had two. And you’re seeing that in the national news all over.”
But for the citizens of Weslaco, the first step will be completing a project that will be paid for using funds from a $4 million CO bond the city approved late last year, Perez said.
“We’re going to try to work with the school district on a drain detention facility on North Westgate north of the expressway,” he said.
As for the five projects identified in the bond election proposal, Perez said work could begin on those as early as this summer.
“I’m hoping that we’ll probably get that started in the next four months or so,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Donna, voters were asked to decide on three proposed changes to the city charter, which had remained unchanged since 1994.
At stake were proposed changes to the term lengths of the mayor, commissioners and municipal judge, as well as the removal of language from the charter that city officials said was unconstitutional or in conflict with state law.
Proposition A failed by 53.74% of the vote. It would have lengthened the terms of the mayor and commissioners from three years to four — the maximum allowable under state law — and would have gone into effect immediately. A total of 366 voters cast their ballots against it, while 315 voted for.
According to the language on the ballot, Prop A was proposed as a municipal cost-savings measure.
Prop B failed by 54.60% of the vote. Like Prop A, it proposed lengthening the term of service of the municipal judge from three years to four. Some 362 voters voted against Prop B, while 301 voted for.
Prop C failed with 56.63% percent of voters voting against it, while 43.47% voted for it. This proposition gained 282 votes in favor, with 372 votes against.
Prop C became the source of some questions after specifics about the proposal remained unavailable to the public until just three days before early voting, which began Monday, April 22.
The language on the Prop C ballot read simply, “The removal from the city of Donna charter of unconstitutional provisions and provisions superceded (sic) by statute.”
Though city leaders ordered the charter amendment special election in mid-February, it wasn’t until Friday, April 19 that the city posted information on its website regarding the proposed changes in Prop C.
Last month, when pressed for details about Prop C, Donna City Manager Carlos Yerena referred questions to City Attorney Javier Villalobos, who himself could not speak to specifics.
“Actually, there’s some studying that I need to do on some of the issues, too,” Villalobos said.
“What’s very clear, (that’s) definitely out,” Villalobos said at the time, referring to unnamed portions of the charter that are no longer viable under current state law.
“Some of the stuff that’s not (clear), I’ll take a look at, but that’s what it is,” he said.
In all, the city proposed to delete nine portions of the city charter via Prop C. The majority of the proposed changes involved elections provisions that are no longer in sync with state law.
One change would have rectified a section of the charter that does not comply with the Texas Open Meetings Act, while another would have removed a provision that allows the city to withhold payment of claims or debts to people or businesses that are delinquent in their taxes.