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File photo: Supporters of Valley Interfaith campaign for single member districts in McAllen.

Before the 1997 elections in McAllen for both mayor and a 1/2 cent sales tax increase, several of us pastors in conjunction with Valley Interfaith conducted a survey of 3,779 parishioners from the – at that time – five Catholic parishes in town.

The tax increase proposition had failed twice before, which prompted us to question the political viability of the city’s proposed projects to be funded.
After many conversations with parish groups and individuals, we added to the city’s list of projects our own short list which we called the ‘people’s agenda.’ On a particular weekend of Masses then, 3,779 parishioners ranked all 20 items on a sheet of paper which included both the city’s and our lists of projects.

The results of our survey reflected little community interest in the city’s subsidizing development corporations, chambers of commerce, museums, a rebuilt golf course and a McAllen training camp for the Dallas Cowboys. Even the proposed convention center ranked only 15th on the list of 20 projects.

Consequently, we suggested to the mayoral candidates that after two failures to pass the 1/2 cent sales tax, they should consider including our ‘people’s agenda’ on the actual ballot. People had expressed an interest in effective job training for adults, better police protection, affordable housing, the ‘El Milagro Clinic’, after school enrichment programs, library branches in northwest and southwest McAllen, street and drainage improvements and good parks. Both mayoral candidates then agreed to put the ‘people’s projects’ on the top of the ballot for the sales tax election, a wise decision which secured its victory.

Immediately after the election, however, the city commission reneged on funding the construction of the two library branches and on funding the health clinic for the poor. The Valley Interfaith network of churches responded by raising enough signatures to force an election which successfully restructured the city’s governing structure from at large to single member districts. We reasoned that the ‘people’s agenda’ would fare better under single member districts whose elected representatives would be expected to focus on the improvement of their respective districts’ neighborhoods and not solely on the interests of the business community. After the McAllen citizenry voted single member districts into existence, the original promises to fund the two library branches and the health clinic were finally honored.

Fifteen years later we hear some city commissioners now admonishing directors of the ‘people’s agenda’ projects, like El Milagro Clinic, that their programs should be self-sustaining. In fact, these projects have seen their portions of sales tax revenues considerably diminished over the years in spite of single member districts, whereas the same commissioners have little apprehension about continuously increasing funding from sales taxes for the Chamber of Commerce, the development corporations, the golf course and other business-focused projects.

We too want McAllen to continue being prosperous and progressive, but also just and compassionate. No one can deny that the McAllen greater metropolitan area is among the poorest in the nation and suffers from a high percentage of uninsured and undereducated persons. They pay their share of sales taxes and ought to figure strongly in the distribution of its fruits.