DONNA, RGV – As planned, Ernesto Silva is leaving his post as Donna’s interim city manager at the end of the year.
Last summer, Silva told city council members and staff not to factor him into the equation when they were working on this year’s budget.
“During our summer retreat on South Padre Island, when the city council members were reviewing all their consultants, I asked them not to budget for me beyond December 31. I do not want people to think I am leaving because of the recent election. It had nothing to do with it. It had a drop-dead date of December 31,” Silva said.
The new mayor of Donna will be decided next Monday when the runoff between former mayor Ric Morales and city council member Simon Sauceda takes place.
Silva said he has enjoyed his time helping the citizens of Donna, working with hard-working and dedicated city staff and council members.
“It’s been great. It’s been a lot of fun working really hard with the staff. The staff had to make so many adjustments to so many different changes. You know, when you take a community that lacks structure and you start putting structure and rules and guidelines in place, it can be difficult,” Silva said.
“You want to make sure everything’s in writing, everything’s approved by the board, changing personnel policies to make things more effective for both the city and the employees. Most importantly, that we take into account the investment made by the taxpayers, to make sure that the employees are not taking advantage of the taxpayers’ money. There’s a balancing act there. It’s got to be fair to both sides, and that was difficult to do as well.”
In an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Silva discussed his time helping Donna. One of the big highlights, he said, was developing the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge.
Helping with the International Bridge, Part One
“I first got hired to help them in 2005. I was getting ready to leave Mercedes EDC. I had a job lined up in San Antonio. City Council members Lupe Castillo and Gilbert Guerrero called me. They said, ‘we really want you to help us with the bridge.’ They feared the bridge would never get developed,” Silva recalled.
“Back then, Mercedes and Donna were partners in developing the bridge. The mayor at the time was Ric Morales. He and I grew up together, in the same neighborhood in Harlingen. They voted to bring me in as a consultant.”
Silva said once he was taken on as a consultant his first task was helping Donna get its bridge opened. That happened in 2010. He said that initially, however, things did not look good.
“I assisted them in getting grants. We had our first meeting in Fort Worth and then another in Washington, D.C. We were told, ‘the bridge is not on the priority list, this is not a bridge that is going to get built any time soon’.”
The meetings were with the General Services Administration and U.S. Customs.
“We had several meetings in Washington. It was difficult because there was no money available for design and the work that needed to be undertaken. Donna had partnered with Mercedes, which had put up half a million dollars. After 2005, Mercedes had a new mayor and a new council, and they decided they wanted to get out of the project,” Silva recalled.
“So, Donna paid them their money back and Donna continued to look for the money to do the design and move the project forward. It was very difficult because the project had no traction at all. There was no support in Washington.”
Silva said the City of Donna had to find $3 million in order for the federal government to undertake a conceptual design of the bridge.
“There was no guarantee the project was going to get built. The people who had hired me were Mayor Morales and Lupe Castillo. By the time they hired me Gilbert Guerrero was no longer there. There was also Rey Alegria, and Eloy Avila, Frank Garza. During that whole time, until 2010 I was working for that administration. Then there was a change in mayor and when the bridge was opened I was released from my contract. This was 2010. I went off to work with other cities.”
Helping with the International Bridge, Part Two
In 2013, Silva was called back by the City of Donna, again to help them with the bridge.
“They had hit a roadblock and had not been able to move the project further to get approval for commercial traffic,” Silva said, pointing that the instability at city hall had not helped.
“You have to understand that since 2005 to now Donna has had eight city managers. There has been a change in city management over and over again. The priorities change, there is no consistency. There is no stability. In 2013 the difference was, the city council said, you have the experience, go figure it (how to get commercial traffic at the bridge) out and bring it to us. And, by the way, we do not have any money.”
An important development at this time was the Donations Acceptance Program, which allowed municipalities to donate bridge infrastructure to the federal government.
“This was a program we had been pushing for since before 2010. Before, the federal government was not able to accept donations for facilities. This was going to open up the door for cities and counties to invest in those facilities and give them to the federal government. This opened a huge door for us and push our project through.”
Silva said he was not the only bridge developer to take advantage of the Donations Acceptance Program.
“It helped everyone along the border. It opened the door for commercial trucks. Before, commercial trucks were not a priority for the federal government,” Silva said.
“We had to come up with a plan for them to approve the commercial traffic. So, we came up with a plan for them to first approve empty trucks crossing the bridge and then fully loaded.”
The approvals came rapidly.
“In 2015 we got approval for empties southbound, in 2016 we got approval for empties northbound, and then in 2017 approval for loaded northbound and southbound. So, we have had three applications approved, three years in a row. Other bridges have not had the good fortune to move past the bureaucracy. We have moved expeditiously through the system,” Silva explained.
The irony of how small-town politics works is not lost on Silva.
“I was let go into 2010 under the administration of Mayor Simmonds and Simon Sauceda. Irene Muñoz was a city commissioner at that time, with Joey Garza and Lupe Castillo. They are the ones who did not renew my contract. I was absent for three years. Then, Simon brought me back, along with Mayor Castillo, Sonia Gallegos, Cathy Alvarado and Joey Garza, to help them with the bridge.”
Future of the Bridge
Silva said in order for the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge to be fully operational, city leaders have got to finish the design for facilities that handle fully-loaded trucks.
“We have to find the funding for the $30 million, build it, and then put it in the operations. It shouldn’t be any later than 2019, but that all depends. Stability is very important to the federal government. I’m sure that they will want to make sure that there’s some type of stability in the bridge project to make sure that it’s going to get built,” Silva said.
“Working with other consultants, we’ve been able to put a single inspection pilot program together that has been approved by the federal government. It’s the first of its kind, and if it gets implemented in Donna, it’ll get implemented in all the ports.”
Silva said he calls the new pilot program “Trade in Motion.” He said the idea is to save time in crossing trucks using technology and not having any manpower – what they call intrusive – inspections.
“This will be non-intrusive inspections. It will all be done with x-rays, and technology. And, that particular technology did not exist all in one system, and we were able to work to bring it all together, and I think that’s the future. I’m just happy to say that I’m one of the ones that came up with the idea how this should all operate.”
Silva said he has identified the $30 million needed to make the Trade in Motion project a reality.
Helping the City with its Finances
In 2016, while working on bridge project, the Donna city council asked Silva if he would take the role of interim city manager.
“It was supposed to a temporary gig while they found a permanent city manager. They have had many applicants, but they have never found the right one. They asked me to steer the ship until they hired a full-time manager. They had some issues with their finances. We noticed that half a million dollars had been spent on emergency repairs and the repairs were always done at the weekend. So, we had to investigate,” Silva recalls.
“Also, they asked me to take a closer look at the city’s budget. They were operating under a procurement policy that allowed decisions to made without council approval for expenditures up to $49,999. No formal bids were needed. Department heads could make the decisions. So, we introduced a more stringent procurement policy.”
Now, any expenditures over $500 go to the city council for approval. “Some thought this might be overkill but we thought it prudent,” Silva said.
Another change has come regarding how the purchase of capital equipment is prioritized.
“The city’s police department did not have a radio system that worked. They could not communicate with each other. They were using their own weapons, they did not have bullet-proof vests. They had four shotguns to cover the whole city. The priorities were not in accordance with what was necessary,” Silva said.
“We identified all this within the first six months. The city council said, why don’t you stay and help us with finances. I did, and I found taxes were too high and most of the money raised was going to service the debt on the bridge. I told them they had to refinance the bridge, and raise tolls,” Silva recalls.
“This was not popular. Their financial advisers said it could not be done. The bank was charging them 6.5 percent when interest rates were three percent. So, we put a new plan together. The refinancing would save us $800,000 a year for 30 years. That is $32 million in savings. This was critical to stabilizing finances. The situation was fragile. We could not raise taxes, but we needed more revenue.”
The new plan, coupled with cost-cutting measures, enabled Donna to keep 25 percent of its revenues in reserve. It built up reserves for its general fund, its utility fund and its bridge fund.
“When we went to the money people in New York we were able to show them we had regained stability,” Silva said proudly. “Plus, our revenues from the bridge were going up. Our traffic count was up, we started advertising our bridge in Mexico, we showed the money people all the economic development commitments we had, and that our ad valorem revenues and sales tax revenues were going up.”
The uptick in Donna’s fortunes allowed the international bridge to be refinanced and bonds to be sold for new infrastructure projects. The projects included improvements for the fire department and street paving.
“The new infrastructure projects allowed us to recruit more businesses. We acquired land, put in water lines, paved streets. The turnaround was so good we were able to cut taxes by 48 cents in three years,” Silva said.
The Rio Grande Guardian asked Silva about an issue that came up during the recent city council elections. Namely, the money the City of Donna owes him.
“The City owes me money for several projects. From work on the bridge and grants that I have brought them for water and sewer projects,” Silva said. “I will give you an example. The City would have to go out and borrow money to build inspection facilities at the bridge for the federal government. This is an important point. Under state law, you cannot borrow money and then donate facilities to anybody, including the federal government. You cannot borrow money and then give something away. So, the only way they can undertake the improvements is through grants, or through some kind of private partnership.”
Silva said one of the reasons Donna city leaders brought him back was to find new money.
“We have been able to find them enough money to build the empties facility at the bridge. I went out and identified and got them $15 million for the empties facility. Part of my fees comes from my grant money. Whatever grant money I bring in, they pay me. If I did not bring in the grant money they could not do the facilities. If I do not go out and hustle and find the money, they cannot build the facilities because they cannot finance it,” Silva explained.
“But, even if they could finance it, if they were to go and float $15 million in bonds then they would have to raise their taxes, just like they did the first time, to support the bridge. We have been able to do it through grants. For every $1 million borrowed it is $65,000 in annual payment. That is the debt service. We would have to raise taxes by 18 cents to cover that debt. That is just for the empties.”
Silva said Donna still needs to find another $30 million to build facilities at the bridge for loaded trucks. He said he is helping the city with this.
“This is a separate contract. If they did not keep me as an interim city manager and they decide not to keep me as a bridge consultant, they would still have to come up with another $30 million to get fully loaded trucks. I have identified the money and I am working on it. If they don’t keep me and they don’t get the $30 million then they will have to sell bonds. That would mean an increase in taxes of 36 cents, which is not allowed under the state constitution, so the project would be dead. I know it is simple to say the guy makes a lot of money but if they were to go out and borrow $30 million, they would pay back almost $90 million.”
Silva said Donna currently has 22 new projects under design and is going out for bids on them.
“We have the water treatment plant and a project to rehab and expand the wastewater treatment plant. And, then we’ve got a project to interconnect with Weslaco on their water system with the tower, and we need to tear down the second tower. And then we’ve got 26 streets that are slated to be paved. All that is already in the hopper,” Silva explained.
“Not to mention that we’ve been working to do a multi-activity center so that we can have a gymnasium with multiple gyms so that we can have kind of a Boys and Girls Club facility operated by the city. We have purchased the land south of Altas Palmas for that. So, those are all projects that are on the books right now.”
On top of this, Silva said Donna wants to build a new police station.
“We’ve got the design of the police station and that’s supposed to start in January. Because we’re going to have to go out and sell bonds soon to build the new police station and build the gymnasium. Those are two of the big priorities for the council right now. But once I’m no longer there, the new city manager has to take all the input from the council and the community and come up with their own plan of what they’re going to do. They may want to do an alternative plan or a hybrid plan.”
Dealing with Complaints
Silva admitted that during his first month as interim city manager, things were “a little bit rocky.” This, he said, was because city council members were used to waling in city hall and talking directly to the staff, sometimes making verbal complaints.
“I told them, we have to structure and formalize everything. You have to have complaint forms filled out by the resident that’s actually complaining or by the city council member so that we can have a record of all the complaints. We cannot have council members talk directly to the staff because it violates the city charter. And, in Donna, it’s very specific that the mayor and city council have no administrative authority. None. Zero,” Silva said.
“I had to explain that to the city council members that if there was ever a time where I didn’t feel that they wanted to follow the direction I wanted to take the city in, I would just leave because there’s a 30-day clause in the contract. And, they could get rid of me in 30 days. So, I think that we had a mutual understanding that if we didn’t like each other, either one of us could part ways and move on. So, I think that’s been a big plus.”
Leaving a Legacy
Asked about his fondest memories in city government, Silva said Pharr, Mercedes and Donna, the three cities he has worked with, are like a second home to him.
“I’ve been very successful with all three cities, and I think I have done a lot to help the community. It’s a big accomplishment when you’re an administrator like a city manager and you’re able to see your plans come to fruition and see projects be built, especially when they’re projects that the community has longed for, like the Outlet Mall in Mercedes, the international bridge in Pharr, the widening of Nolana Avenue and Ridge Road and 281 in Pharr,” Silva said.
“And then in Donna, of course, 493, the water tower, the bridge – those are all big projects. It’s part of your legacy. Cause most people want to do something in their life to be remembered by, and I can say I’ve done something in my life in Harlingen, Mercedes, Donna and Pharr. How many people can say that they’ve had a major impact in the life of a lot of people in the Valley and in three different communities?”
Silva said he is excited about the IBTC project, which will connect the city’s international bridge directly to 281, north of Edinburg through State Highway 68. “It will enable Donna to have an important north-south connector to the outside world because right now everything goes east and west. Later it will be going north and south.”
Asked if Donna has a bright future, Silva said: “As long as they maintain structure, and they continue with the economic development plan that’s in place – working with the bridge – their economy is just going to continue to grow. Donna had nowhere to go but up, and that’s what people need to understand. When we went in there it was during one of the worst times financially for the city. And, it’s very hard to take a city that doesn’t have money and undertake projects that cost a lot of money because you have to go out and find the money or create the money in order to do it.”
On the other hand, Silva said, it is so much easier to build a community that already has a lot of money.
“You just throw money at the problems and fix the problems. But, it’s very difficult (in a city such as Donna). It takes a lot of time and a lot of research in order to utilize money that you really don’t have, and you’ve got to bank on the future and you’ve got to invest in yourself. And, so that was the difficult part. But, that was the same position when I took over in Pharr. The same position that Mercedes was in when I went there. And it was the same position that I found Donna to be in,” Silva said.
“It gives me a lot of pleasure to know that I do something that… like I said, eight other city managers had been there, and none of them could turn the economy and lower taxes and invest in the community. They hadn’t been able to do it, so it’s a challenge. I look forward to another challenge in another community. If there’s a community out there that feels they’re in dire straits and they can’t find answers, that’s what I like to do. I like to go in there and help communities resolve their major issues, their financial issues. It’s not easy.”
The immediate future for Donna is bright, Silva said, because there are a steady stream of investors coming to town.
“They want to do subdivisions, they want to do new developments for our apartments, where before they wouldn’t have come into the city. Plus, when our commercial traffic starts to cross (the international bridge), that’s a whole different type of job, different employment opportunities. The pay is a little bit higher,” Silva explained.
“It (commercial truck traffic) also allows for big companies to come in that will normally want to buy for their managers, their staff that they bring from up north or from other areas, other countries. So, they’ll look to put them near the plants or their warehousing and distribution. So, that’s going to open up the door. Quite possibly, that’ll be the catalyst for the Alliance River Crossing project, and that could become a reality with upper scale homes and parks and retail centers. So, I think they’re just three or four years away from really taking advantage of what’s going on now.”
Silva’s Future Plans
Silva has a son living in Dallas that he would like to see more of.
“We were used to spending all the summer together and the holidays, and when I took the position here in Donna, it cut into my time with him drastically. I wasn’t able to take the whole summer off … I mean spending more time with him, doing the fun things. He’s nine years old, and so … that’s important to me. Those are the most important times of a child’s life, and for me, that’s very important – family,” Silva said.
“And, so that’s what I had told them (Donna City Council) from the get-go, that I did not want to be there very long. And, unfortunately, it just continued to snowball as we got into the city’s finances, their projects, and refinancing of the bonds, and they just kept extending the timeline. But, as far as wanting to be a permanent city manager, that’s not something I ever looked forward to.”
Silva said he has great sympathy for full-time city managers.
“Being a city manager is a 365-24-7 job. And, you know, you get called at every hour of the night, anytime there’s an accident, a fire, or somebody gets kidnapped, a child gets lost, you know, you’re hounded by the news media. There’s always that, you know, that connotation that city hall is bad by a lot of people. And, in reality, you go to work and you try to do what’s best for the community and make the community better. You know, that’s the ultimate goal of any city manager, or any public servant, really.”
Editor’s Note: Rio Grande Guardian reporter Patricia Martinez contributed to this story from Donna, Texas.