Weslaco to revise master plan, re-strategize debt load

WESLACO — City leaders here are looking at making some changes in the coming months with the aim of guiding the continued development of the “city on the grow.”

To that end, the entire commission, along with the city’s department heads, gathered for an annual planning workshop Saturday at the Joe V. Sanchez Public Library. Discussions regarding the city’s comprehensive master plan, managing debt flexibility under newly passed tax limitations, sanitation, and funding the new construction of public safety facilities topped the three-hour workshop.

The informal meeting began with discussions of the city’s master plan — a document that aims to serve as a guidepost for Weslaco’s future development, from land use goals, to transportation and infrastructure growth and more. It is meant “to be the guide for how we develop our development regulations,” interim Planning Director Rebecca de la Fuente explained to the commission.

The current master plan was approved in 2014 after then-commissioners rejected the bona fides from approximately half a dozen firms who had responded to the city’s request for qualifications for the project. Instead, a firm that had not responded to the RFQ was awarded the contract, which “left a lot to be desired,” Mayor David Suarez said during the workshop.

The commission also contemplated ending its use of Republic Services for solid waste collection and brush pickup, and instead having the city take over those services.

Each year since the contract was signed via an emergency action — also by the same administration that approved the master plan contract award — the city has faced rising costs from the private trash company.

With another cost increase announced last August, the city has stalled on renewing the contract while it considers raising commercial trash rates. According to City Manager Mike Perez, commercial trash revenues are being subsidized by residential customers.

“Right now, we’re making a profit on the elderly. We’re making a profit on the people who are on welfare. But the commercial people? We’re subsidizing them,” Perez said.

“Philosophically, I don’t think it’s something that we should do,” he said, before suggesting a 5% increase on commercial accounts.

Suarez, however, grew concerned that staff estimates of how much it would cost to take over the operations would fall short of the true costs. “I’m very leery that you have this company — that’s all they do — and we’re saying that we’re gonna make a lot more money than they are, and we’re not in the trash business,” Suarez said.

The commission also focused on balancing multiple public infrastructure projects with changing debt constraints, including how a newly passed tax revenue cap will impact the city’s ability to fund big ticket expenditures.

In 2019, Weslaco took out a combined $14 million in debt to fund much-needed drainage improvement projects. And over the next few years, it will begin a multimillion dollar construction project for new police and fire stations, as well as a new public library to be located on a 9-acre property east of city hall — projects that will also need financing.

City leaders are also looking at several street projects.

Just as it begins to finance those projects, the city will retire older debt obligations.

However, also in 2019, state legislators approved a tax limitation bill that will make it harder for cities to raise revenues via property taxes. Beginning next fiscal year, if a taxing entity wishes to raise taxes by more than 3.5%, it will be forced to put that matter up for voter approval via special election.

“Now we have to take a look at how do we do it with debt? And as we have debt that’s being paid off, we need to issue debt so we keep that tax rate at the same level and be able to pay for the things that need to be done in the city,” Perez explained after the workshop.

The city manager, who described his financial management philosophy as “pay as you go” said the changing landscape requires local leaders to instead begin thinking long term. “We’ve gotta be looking beyond just next year. We ought to be looking at 4 or 5 years from now, and then planning for that,” Perez said.