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Martha Sanchez, community organizing coordinator for La Unión del Pueblo Entero.

SAN JUAN, RGV – It was the No. 1 legislative agenda item for La Unión del Pueblo Entero for the past decade and now – finally – street lighting for colonias in Hidalgo County has been passed into law.

House Bill 3002 allows Hidalgo County to collect a fee from certain residents to pay for street lighting. It became law recently without Governor Greg Abbott’s signature. The author of the legislation, state Rep. Armando Martinez, and the sponsor, state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, will attend a celebratory news conference with LUPE and Project ARISE leaders in San Juan today.

“I was proud to carry this legislation for LUPE and ARISE. I know how important it is for colonia residents. Finally, we can start addressing the urgent need for street lighting in our colonias,” Martinez told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Martinez said his legislation will help Hidalgo County install streetlights in county neighborhoods by giving the county a process for charging for the electricity consumed.

Juanita Valdez-Cox, executive director of LUPE, told the Rio Grande Guardian that the legislation originated in house meetings by colonia residents. “I want to thank Representative Martinez and Senator Hinojosa or carrying this important legislation for us. The street lighting bill was our top priority this session. We have been fighting to shed light on our colonias for more than ten years. It is an example of what can be achieved by grassroots, civic engagement. It is important that those impacted by legislation are the ones to give their voice, to tell their stories, to give their testimony on what it has been like to live without street lights.”

Martha Sanchez, a community organizer for LUPE explained that under legislation passed in 2007, Hidalgo County already had the authority to install streetlights along county roads, and to collect a fee from neighborhood residents who benefit from those streetlights to pay for the electricity the lights use. Sanchez said HB 3002 creates a process for collecting that fee by requiring the county tax assessor to place the fee on the annual property tax bill of the property owners who benefit from the streetlights.

“The county will still need to take steps to adopt that process, and neighborhoods will need to apply to have streetlights installed on an individual basis. But thanks to this bill, the whole process will be much more straightforward and carry the authority of state law,” Sanchez said.

This is how Martinez’s legislation was analyzed by bill analysis experts at the state Capitol:

Hidalgo County in South Texas has more colonias than any other county in the United States. Colonias are unincorporated communities in counties that are usually characterized by poor infrastructure, lower quality homes, and higher incidences of crime. While these communities have long been neglected by the state, the actual community members within colonias are strong, determined individuals living within their means.

Over the last few sessions, various pieces of legislation have sought to address the infrastructure issues within colonias. Section 280.003 (Street Lights in Subdivision Located in Certain Counties), Transportation Code, currently allows counties to establish street lighting in colonia subdivisions and impose a fee on landowners who benefit from the street lights. However, some counties maintain that current statute is silent on the process of how the fees should be assessed and collected by a county tax assessor-collector.
The authority to assess a tax for street lighting exists; however, there is not an efficient method of collection.

H.B. 3002 amends Section 280.003 of the Transportation Code to provide for an effective method of assessing and collecting fees to install street lights.

H.B. 3002 amends current law relating to the fee imposed on certain property owners by a county for the establishment of street lights along a county road.

LUPE’s Sanchez pointed out that her group has been battling to get street lighting in colonias in Hidalgo County for ten years. Indeed, the first legislation was passed in 2005 by then freshman state Rep. Veronica Gonzales. Sanchez gave an interview to the Rio Grande Guardian some weeks ago but asked that it not be published until after the Governor’s veto period had ended – just in case highlighting the legislation in the media roused those who do not like colonias and colonia residents.

“The bill is really quite simple. It says the county can add a charge to the tax bill for the people in the colonias who want to have street lights in their colonias. Initially, the House and Senate committees were very hesitant, the Republicans were very hesitant. They felt this bill would make everybody have to pay. We clarified that this was only for colonias who chose to have public lights. It is not going to be all the colonias in Hidalgo County or all the colonias on the border. The residents have to pay for this service. It will only be those colonias who agree that they want to have public lights and the bill will come with a tax. It is that simple. It allows the county to put this charge on the bill,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez was asked how much a colonia resident could expect to pay for the street lights. “It depends, possibly $27 to $35 to $40. It depends on the size of the colonia. It depends on who the carrier is. Sometimes Magic Valley is less expensive than other carriers. We are finding out it is not one price for all but, of course, one colonia will pay the same amount.”

Sanchez said she thinks if came as a surprise to Hidalgo County commissioners that LUPE was having discussions with colonia residents about the idea of people volunteering to pay for street lighting. “Remember, our people are not asking for this for free, they are willing to pay their part. To make this work, however, the county has got to add the infrastructure. Right now we are doing pilot projects in six colonias that have the infrastructure. The county has to allow this infrastructure to happen in some of the colonias.”

Sanchez said Hidalgo County Commissioner for Precinct 4 Joseph Palacios has pledged funding for the infrastructure. “We have not heard from the others yet. They will have to assign specific money in their next budgets for this. We want colonias in all the precincts to be lighted.”

Sanchez said the pilot project was very useful. “It allowed the county tax collector to implement a charge and it allowed us to see what kind of problems we might encounter as we scaled it up. The pilot project was super beneficial on a smaller scale. Next year we want to do it on a much, much bigger scale.”

Sanchez added: A big kudos to our Rio Grande Valley legislators, particularly Rep. Martinez and Sen. Hinojosa, and also a big kudos to Commissioner Palacios for working with us on this. This is a huge victory for LUPE and ARISE after years of struggling to get this off the ground.”

LUPE’s representative at the state Capitol on this legislation is John Henneberger. When the legislation championed by LUPE and ARISWE was heard in committee, Henneberger held up a large photo taken by satellite of the Rio Grande Valley at night. The McAllen-Edinburg area was lit up and so was Brownsville and Harlingen. The largest colonias were outlined on the photo and they were in total darkness. Henneberger provided the senators with copies of this photo to make his point.

“We have had a number of children struck walking to or getting off school buses,” Henneberger testified. “Security and public safety are a big concern. The colonias are so dark it is really difficult for the sheriff’s department to patrol the areas. Children are often playing outside in the colonias at night and there have been some tragic accidents with children being struck by automobiles. There are literally no street lights in these areas.”

Henneberger added that street light legislation is “a very high priority” for the people who live in colonias in Hidalgo County. “In fact, it is the No. 1 priority above everything else,” he said.

Editor’s Note: In the main photo accompanying this story, members of the RGV Equal Voice Network, which includes LUPE, are pictured campaigning for colonia street lights at an event in Weslaco in February, 2013.