BROWNSVILLE, RGV – Brownsville’s city manager says the municipality may have to intervene in a big way to ensure local residents have high-speed Internet connectivity.
Sometimes the private sector does not come through with a service of community-wide interest, Noel Bernal told the Rio Grande Guardian. In such cases, he said, the government must step in.
According to studies, Brownsville is one of the least “wired” cities in the nation. In an in-depth interview about the digital divide, Bernal said the City of Brownsville is working closely with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas to address the issue.
“We are working with the Dallas Federal Reserve, Jordana Barton, and we are bringing in staff from San Antonio that are slightly ahead of us to look at how we are going to broach the issue of the digital divide,” Bernal said.
“We are looking at actual implementation of a model whereby the city can intervene, for example, even having a municipally-owned broadband system. Everything is on the table.”
Bernal said a municipality-owned broadband system may be necessary in Brownsville because leaving things to the private sector has not worked.
A municipally-owned broadband system, that is one model that we are interested in exploring. We own our own electrical utility so it gives us an advantage,” Bernal said.
“So, these are some of the things we are looking at, concrete things, for implementation, hopefully in the next year or so. There are a lot of details we have to iron out but we are very committed to doing some of that.”
The purpose of the Rio Grande Guardian’s interview with Bernal was to preview a speech he will give this Friday to the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce. However, much of the interview was taken up with the city’s connectivity woes.
In his recent State of the City address, Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez said addressing the digital divide would be one of the top issues for his new administration.
“What I plan to do on Friday (at the Chamber event) is stay within the script the mayor has outlined. His framework was culture, innovation and people. A lot of what we are doing touches on those aspects,” Bernal said.
Bernal noted that the mayor and city commission is just finishing off its five-year strategic plan.
“The strategic plan stays within that same general framework (the mayor gave in his state of the city address). The mayor gave the high level and I will be going into some more of the details, what are we really driving at, at the administrative level to bring those visions to life.”
Bernal was asked what he thought of a moving story shared at the state of the city address by Brownsville ISD trustee Philip Cowen. Following Mendez’s remarks about the digital divide, Cowen told how a Porter High School student had to go door-to-door in her neighborhood to find a family that had high-speed Internet. She needed it to submit her valedictorian speech to the school principal.
“We understand the world Is becoming more and more digital. There is plenty of evidence that reflects that. I think the question becomes, from a policy perspective… governments and local governments in particular have had the ability to intervene when the market does not provide or do its part on areas like infrastructure investment, in this case digital and fiber,” Bernal responded.
“The question is, do we want to leave it up to chance and give it more time or do we want to accelerate that so we can be partakers and beneficiaries of the digital economy? The answer is, really, we want to be intervening.”
Asked why he feels Brownsville must intervene in delivering high-speed Internet, Bernal said: “Because we believe that in order to take advantage of the growth the Valley has seen and to give our students, from the workforce development standpoint, from the education standpoint, from the healthcare standpoint… technology now touches so many things that if we don’t take the initiative the opportunity will be lost for us. There is too much at risk. We want to take advantage of that.”
Asked if there are any laws that would stop a municipality from providing hight-speed Internet, Bernal said there is case law that allows a city to get involved.
“I took part in a meeting recently where I actually met with the city manager and his team and I am waiting for some of the feedback. The city was Mont Belvieu in Texas. They have set that precedent, there is case law out there, there is a window for cities to take that step. We are working with them and learning from them. Their reason and our reason for doing this is very different. However, it is a model we can explore because they took matters into our own hands and that is what we are talking about in Brownsville.”
As for the city’s work on a new five-year strategic plan, Bernal said city leaders plan to visit the IC2 Institute at UT-Austin. “That is a think tank that focuses on technology development and entrepreneurship,” he said.
Crossroads Interactive Festival
The Rio Grande Guardian also asked Bernal about the planned Crossroads Interactive Festival, which Mayor Mendez mentioned in his state of the city address.
Bernal said the festival would be an extension of Brownsville’s iconic Charro Days.
“In a way it is Charro Days 2.0. It is building on the culture and history we have with Charro Days but adding to it. We have things happening in Brownsville that are arts related, that are science related. We are talking about technology and new space. We have active living and eco-tourism. We are also a magnet sometimes for the not so positive in the political sphere,” Bernal said.
“So, those are four elements right there that I would argue Charro Days does not encompass. Charro Days is culture, history and tradition and the binational relationship. If we can add art, science, technology, health and some political interaction, we give it a South By Southwest flavor and that is the purpose of the Crossroads Festival.”
Bernal noted that Brownsville had “Crossroads of the Hemisphere” as one of its logos many, many years ago.
“Charro Days goes Thursday through Sunday. We are now trying to do the Monday and Wednesday part. We are working with Texas Monthly on this.”
Bernal to speak as part of Friday with the City series
City Manager Bernal will be addressing the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce as part of its Friday with the City series. Here is what the Chamber said about the event:
The Brownsville Chamber of Commerce and the City of Brownsville welcomes you to join us for the City Manager’s Update. As the City Manager, Mr. Noel Bernal reports to the Mayor and City Commission and provides leadership and management to over 1,400 employees and a $153 million operating budget.
On December 3, 2018, Mr. Bernal begun his service as City Manager after a unanimous vote by Brownsville Commissioners was made on October 2018. Mr. Bernal has served communities in South, Central, and North Texas throughout his professional career in public service beginning with small cities and progressing into leadership roles within high-growth markets in Austin-Round Rock and Dallas-Ft. Worth. His prior experience includes serving as City Administrator of La Villa and Falfurrias, Assistant City Manager in Taylor, and Deputy City Manager in Coppell.
“Nearing completion of his first year in service as City Manager, Mr. Noel Bernal will discuss the following:
- Implementing an Organizational Culture using the Total Alignment framework with an emphasis on leadership development and high performance results;
- Implemented new organizational structure to accomplish strategic objectives and operational efficiencies including new Communications & Marketing, Internal Services, Enterprise Applications, and Multi-Modal Transportation departments;
- Hired new Executive Team members for Communications & Marketing, Internal Services, Public Works & Engineering, and Planning and Redevelopment Services;
- Utilized professional facilitation for City Commission Strategic Visioning Process for development of 5-year Strategic Plan;
- Established bi-annual book studies – Managing Transitions (12/18), The Advantage (05/19), and No Limits (10/19).
- CMO completed Change Management Certifications
- Implemented fiscal land use analysis to establish baseline for growth and development objectives;
- Developed Facilities Improvement Plan of $13 million for comprehensive reinvestment throughout city facilities;
- Implemented innovative Fleet Management Model with hybrid Lease/Purchase methodology;
- Providing management oversight for Unified Development Code and Building Code rewrite;
- Researching Wellness Program options for cost-containment of self-funded medical plan in partnership with UT-School of Public Health, Texas Municipal League, and SA Benefits;
- Retooled long-term financial planning for Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) including a debt restructure creating capacity of $30 million, established pay-go funding for capital outlay;
- Developing 5-Year operating budget forecasting for proactive management of property tax cap impact;
- Implemented $1 million OPEB trust for proactive management of retiree medical benefits;
- Provided management oversight for collective bargaining agreement with Brownsville Police Officer’s Association (BPOA) utilizing interest-based bargaining approach to facilitate health plan transition/reduction;
Upcoming in 2020
- GPZ Master Plan
- P3 Strategies for Retail Development Digital
- Inclusion and Broadband Development
- Economic Development Strategy in conjunction with Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation & Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation.
This informational session is no cost with an RSVP. For more information, contact us at (956) 542-4341 or email us at [email protected].