As some in South Texas make aggressive drainage improvements, Pharr takes different approach

PHARR — Following significant rain storms in recent years that led to thousands of damaged homes and businesses, some in South Texas have made aggressive moves to alleviate flooding and improve drainage.

The city of Weslaco this year asked its voters to pass a $10 million bond, and it was approved. Last year, following the June 2018 storms, Hidalgo County asked voters for $190 million for drainage, and the measure was overwhelmingly approved. Just before the storms, McAllen voters in May 2018 approved a $22 million bond for drainage improvements.

On Monday, Pharr took a different approach.

There was an agenda item for commissioners to vote on whether to hold a bond election for drainage improvements in November. City Manager Alex Meade and city staff had recommended approval for a bond “designating, acquiring, constructing, renovating, improving, upgrading, updating, and equipping drainage and flood control improvements and facilities at various locations within the City of Pharr.”

Meade put the item on the agenda because it was the last day the city had to put a bond election on the November ballot, he said, and he would leave it up to commissioners whether or not they wanted to call an election.

The commissioners retreated to a private executive session to discuss. They eventually returned and did not discuss the issue beyond voting unanimously to disapprove it. Pharr will not be holding a bond election in November.

The storms did not hit Pharr as hard as some other cities in recent years. And no explanation was provided by Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez, as he quickly left Monday’s meeting and did not return calls or text messages for this story. But other South Texas officials who have recently led bond elections to improve drainage said they are no easy sell.

“First of all, you’re asking the taxpayers to take an additional burden,” said Hidalgo County Commissioner David Fuentes, whose Precinct 1 encompasses the eastern part of the county and was devastated by rain storms over the last few years.

Weslaco was one of the cities hit hardest. And Mike Perez, the city manager there, acknowledged drainage can be a tougher ask.

“There was really no discussion of it because we hadn’t had any heavy rains in many, many years,” Perez said. He added: “It’s a hard sell because you don’t use it all the time and it’s underground. You don’t see it. But when it does rain and devastates a family’s home, it’s one of those things you have to address because it does impact quality of life.”

Mayor Jim Darling of McAllen, which happened to hold a bond election the month before the 2018 storms, echoed some of what Perez said, noting that drainage isn’t as much of a tangible issue. Until it is.

“Drainage is kind of an interesting one,” Darling said. “Traffic, you know about it and use it every day. Drainage: ‘Well, it didn’t rain here, so.’”

Fuentes ran through his personal checklist for identifying a bond election.

“How desperate are you?” Fuentes said, pointing out that hundreds of homes were lost in his precinct. “How significant is this project? Is this needed?”

He added: “We felt we could justify a 3-cent increase.”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said “nobody wants more taxes.”

“But our job is to provide services to the people,” Cortez said. “And when if we have to go borrow money to provide services, then by law we have to ask the taxpayers.”