DONNA, RGV – Whatever happens in next Tuesday’s Donna mayoral race, Simon Sauceda says he is proud of the way he and his colleagues on the city council have turned the municipality’s fortunes around.
Sauceda is a teacher and he can remember the days when his students were embarrassed to say they were from Donna. Not anymore.
“I teach 11th and 12th graders. When I would ask students where they were from, they were embarrassed to say. That bothered me. Today, things are finally beginning to change. They are starting to see a more positive outlook. I am proud to be from here and I have noticed the difference. When an 18-year-old can see the progress, and they can see the growth, I feel we have done our job.”
Sauceda is a runoff for mayor with former Donna Mayor Rick Morales, with Election Day next Tuesday. Sauceda came third out of four in the first election behind Morales and Ernesto Lugo. But Lugo, a businessman, suspended his campaign after failing to convince a state district judge he resided in Donna. Then-Mayor Irene Muñoz came in fourth.
Sauceda said he decided to run for mayor because he was concerned that the other candidates running for the post would undo the good work he and his city council colleagues have done. “If a new group comes in they will disrupt so much, in a negative way. We will start to regress to where we were nine years ago, Sauceda said.
Sauceda has been on the city council for nine years. When he was first elected a council member, Morales was mayor. Sauceda said the real transformation for Donna has come in the last three years, with Ernesto Silva at the helm as interim city manager.
“A lot of false information has been put out this election but let’s look at the facts. We have lowered taxes four years in a row, the lowest in 25 years. Economic development is on the rise. Sales tax revenues have increased tremendously. The transition from the time I set foot in city hall nine years to today is night and day,” Sauceda said.
“It has taken so much effort to change our image. Now you can see the sunlight shining through. Our city staff have proven themselves. These past three years have been the best three years Donna has seen in quite a long time.”
Asked to elaborate, Sauceda pointed to the new economic development happening, increased toll revenues from Donna’s international bridge, increased sales tax revenues, and good audit reports.
Sauceda pointed to the tax base of Donna and compared it to neighboring communities. Donna’s tax base is around $625 million. Alamo’s is $630 million; Mercedes’ is around $674 million, and San Juan’s is around $1.3 million. Donna’s tax base has grown faster than initial projections. Instead of growing by the $22 million projected by city officials, it has grown by $86 million. It is now expected to grow another $50 million to $675 million, and then by another $50 million, to $725 million.
Sauceda believes Donna’s tax base can reach that of San Juan’s within the next four years. He said projects such as a new Love’s truck stop and the Shops at 493 are an indication of things to come.
“When our international bridge opened in 2010, our tax base as $338 million. It has increased $287 million, almost double, in seven years. The numbers speak for themselves. How can you rebut the numbers that say Donna is growing and growing fast?” Sauceda asked.
Asked about the concern voters have with high water rates, Sauceda said: “Water rates? That is not an easy issue. We lowered them five percent.”
The slate Sauceda ran on included his city council colleague, Sonia Gallegos. She was defeated. Their slogan was ‘Donna is in our DNA.’
“Donna to me is everything. I love this town. I love this community. I work here. I work for the school district. I have been here 20 years. I live here. I pay taxes here. Rick Morales lives in Harlingen and comes back and forth. When I came on the council, Rick Morales was mayor. It had nothing to do with who was sitting up there as mayor. It had to do with what we did as a council. We have been united, with the same vision. It is all about progress, unity, beautification of our community, having pride. To me, that is very important.”
Gallegos agreed with Sauceda that the last three years have been great for Donna.
“We put the plan in place some years ago. With Ernest’s leadership, the last three years have been glorious. Because it was tough. It was tough to deal with the phone calls about the infrastructure and the services. We would say, we are going to get to it, but we do not have the money just yet. Ernest was able to really think outside of the box. I am very proud of everything we have done. We invested $1.2 million in our parks.”
Rick Morales’ Perspective
Naturally enough, Donna’s former mayor sees things differently. In an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Rick Morales spoke in depth about where he wants to take Donna.
“Our top campaign issues are lowering the water/sewer rates, lowering taxes, economic development, and bringing the elected officials back to the people of Donna.”
Asked to expand on the latter point, Morales said: “I am going to have my name and phone number available at city hall and the water department. If anybody has any concerns or questions, about anything, they do not have to go through city hall, they can call me direct. I am going to be a hands-on mayor and the commissioners are going to be hands-on too. We want the people to feel comfortable when they call us. Right now, lifelong residents are telling me they do not know who to call. All they get is, press one for this, press two for that. You can no longer talk to anybody. By the time you talk to somebody, you are mad and upset and frustrated. We want to bring local government back to the people of Donna.”
Asked what issues voters are voicing, Morale said jobs, economic development, and the conditions of the roads.
“Drive around town, there are potholes everywhere. That is absolutely inexcusable. You can fix potholes, you can refurbish streets. It is about, what we call in Spanish, ganas. You have to have the ganas to get it done. Right now, there is no will from city hall to address these very basic issues.”
Morales said the voters have already spoken, even though the runoff has yet to take place. “When three out of four voters vote against you, you know people are not happy with you and what you are doing. That speaks volumes.”
With regard to economic development, Morales said big changes are in store.
“The first thing we are going to do is explore the building of a 250,000-square-foot cold storage facility right on the bridge, so we can kickstart our commercial traffic. We also want to build a terminal for empty trucks, so they have a place where they can originate from and go into Mexico. Two very important things. I have been talking to people who are in that business and they said they want to move from Pharr to the Donna Bridge. That would generate a couple, maybe three million dollars a year for the Donna Bridge.”
Morales said it will likely be a couple more years before the Donna Bridge has fully loaded commercial trucks heading north and south bound. However, he said that because of the good relations he has developed in Washington, D.C., he does not see any problems getting funding for the remaining infrastructure needed at the bridge. “We have very good relations with the administration in Washington and in Austin. I feel confident we can speed things up.”
Asked about development along Interstate 2 (Expressway 83), Morales said there are some big projects he cannot reveal just yet.
“There are some surprises we will be bringing in, one in the healthcare arena. We have been in contact with some people who have expressed interest in building a state of the art facility. We are also talking to one of the largest companies in the world that sells groceries and jewelry and TVs. I cannot reveal names, but they have expressed interest in doing something in the Mid Valley with the right people in place. And we are going to do everything we can to bring a theater to the Mid Valley, to Donna. There is even talk about bringing big national banks to the Donna area. Because of my background in business, I know these people. It is not like I am a novice. I have done deals with them in the past. Let’s see how it goes.”
Morales said quality of life projects will also be at the forefront.
“We are going to build a big beautiful park. We are going to team up with the school district and build an aquatic center, soccer fields, softball fields, football fields, walking trails. And, first of a kind in the Mid Valley, a park that is friendly for disabled kids. We are excited about that. If we have the city, the school district and the county all working together, we can do something very nice here. There will be minimal cost.”
Asked what the future holds for Donna, Morales said: “When we were building the bridge I said 30 years from now no one would recognize Donna. That was 15 years ago. These things are going to pass. Great things are going to happen. Donna will no longer be a place people drive through and all they get is bad publicity. We will be in the news for good things. We are going to get things done.”
Morales added: “It is going to be good. We are going to transform this town. The international bridge, we are seeing the fruits of it now. Lower taxes, economic development. In 2003 they said we would never get it done. Now we have got it done.”