McAllen city candidates agreeable on issues at student-held forum

EDINBURG — The three candidates vying for central McAllen’s District 5 commission seat generally agreed on questions about public safety, technology improvements and property taxes at a forum hosted by McAllen High School students Thursday night.

In the last public forum for District 4 candidates Joe Califa, a retired city planner, and Tania Ramirez, an attorney, only Califa showed up. That attendance followed a trend set by Ramirez, marking the second consecutive public forum she decided not to attend. Event organizers on Thursday said Ramirez cited a family event for her absence.

The two candidates are fighting to replace longtime commissioner Aida Ramirez, who has represented southwest McAllen for the last 18 years. Califa assailed the current commissioner multiple times on Thursday, saying there has been “a lack of leadership” in the district, which has been “neglected over the last 18 years.”

In the District 5 race, commissioner John Ingram rattled off various improvements the city has made since he joined the commission in 2005, including the growth of Quinta Mazatlan, a low crime rate, the construction of the Convention Center, Performing Arts Center and a new Fire Station No. 2.

Mark Murray, District 5 candidate, during a forum for McAllen City Commission at the McAllen Public Library on Thursday, Mar. 7, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Mark Murray, a South Texas College professor, took a different approach to discussing the fire station at the corner of Harvey Avenue and Main Street.

“I’m the only candidate that block-walked in December to collect 250 signatures to save Fire Station No. 2,” Murray said. City officials at the time discussed possibilities of moving the fire station, but ultimately the officials didn’t find a better location and were never close to moving it elsewhere.

The third candidate in the race, Victor “Seby” Haddad, a banker and a businessman, did not engage in the fire station debate. He circled back multiple times to spurring more business growth in McAllen, one of the prominent parts of his campaign platform. When a question was asked about a possible border shutdown from President Trump, Haddad, like Murray and Califa, criticized the idea.

“We not only have to draw dollars from across the border, but we have to draw dollars from surrounding cities,” Haddad said.

The question was about how McAllen would fair if Trump were to shut down the border. Ingram talked about diversifying revenue streams in the city, something he and fellow commissioners have placed an emphasis on in recent years as the city has not wanted to be overly reliant on sales tax revenues, which have been an economic driver for decades. Ingram said the city should continue to focus on biomedical research, an initiative the city has already launched in collaboration with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine, and to recruit technology jobs, which pay well.

Along the lines of technology, Murray, when asked, said “geolocation is important, especially for our first responders. We can use technology to better respond quickly.” Murray, along with Haddad and Ingram, generally agreed on the question of technology advancements in the city, so long as the city is not taken advantage of by large tech companies.

Victor Haddad, District 5 candidate, during a forum for McAllen City Commission at the McAllen Public Library on Thursday, Mar. 7, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

All the candidates also agreed when asked about property tax legislation in the State Legislature right now, perhaps the biggest debate in Austin this legislative session. The legislation, which is still under debate among lawmakers, calls for capping how much cities can collect from property taxes. The state’s top leaders have argued that the result of this legislation would leave property owners less financially restricted with property taxes.

Cities across the state, including McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, who was in attendance on Thursday, have lambasted the legislation. The candidates did, too.

“The state government is basically removing local power and applying a one-size fits all for all of Texas,” Haddad said.

“I am not in favor of revenue caps,” Ingram said.

“It would cause another economic problem for us,” Murray said.

Early voting for the May 4 election begins on Monday, April 22.