PHARR, RGV – Sergio Contreras, Pharr’s director of external affairs, has received high marks from Mayor Ambrosio ‘Amos’ Hernandez for successfully securing passage of the city’s legislative agenda in Austin.
Contreras used to work in corporate affairs for AT&T and as such had a lot of help from fellow lobbyists working for the telecommunications giant at the state Capitol. For Pharr he was largely on his own in Austin and had to learn new tricks, such as developing riders with state legislators that are placed in the state budget to fund specific one-off projects.
“Just tell us we got everything we wanted,” Hernandez told Contreras as he gave an update to the city commission on how the 84th Legislature panned out. “Thank you, Mayor. We did,” Contreras replied. “I know you did. You get an A-plus,” Hernandez shot back.
Contreras then ran through the top items Pharr had identified at the start of the session. All of them were passed by the Legislature.
One of the top items was approval for a Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence, to be built on land donated by the City of Pharr and administered by South Texas College. Not only did the legislation – House Bill 1887, authored by state Rep. Sergio Muñoz – pass, there was also funding for it. State Sen. Juan Hinojosa, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, recently announced he had secured $2 million for the proposed law enforcement training center. Contreras said this will mean STC will not have to go back to the voters for another bond issue or wait a long time for monies to become available.
Another key piece of legislation for Pharr was a bill by state Rep. R.D. ‘Bobby’ Guerra to get the State of Texas to kick in funds to help pay for fresh produce inspectors at international ports of entry. Contreras said that in 2014 the City of Pharr provided $100,000 to expedite produce crossing its busy international bridge.
“We do this by donating that dollar amount to a non-profit organization approved by the feds called STAC, the South Texas Assets Consortium. They in turn pass that fund over to CBP so they can come to our port of entry and pay for their overtime,” Contreras explained. “Now, every dollar we pitch in the state is going to match it, dollar for dollar, so it will reduce our $100,000 to $50,000.”
Contreras said it is still the hope of Pharr leaders that the federal government provides more of its own money to pay for the overtime of Customs staff. “They are hiring so we hope we do not have to be there offsetting their overtime,” Contreras told city commissioners. He said Rep. Guerra deserves thanks for bringing a large delegation of legislators to the Pharr Bridge in the interim. He also thanked state Sen. Eddie Lucio and Sen. Hinojosa for helping Guerra secure passage of his legislation.
Another major piece of legislation for Pharr, Contreras said, was Senate Bill 1389, authored by Sen. Lucio. Contreras said the bill tweaks the law related to a border commerce coordinator and requires the setting up of an advisory task force comprising border mayors. “We have wanted to be part of the conversation when it comes to border security and when it comes to international trade and we will be,” Contreras told the Rio Grande Guardian.
Another key piece of legislation for Pharr, Contreras said, was House Bill 2515 by Rep. Munoz and Sen. Lucio. He explained to city commissioners what the bill does. “We are in the beginning phase of a lengthy process to establish a foreign trade zone. One of the first parts is to get legislative approval. It will take about 12 to 18 months and costs about $3,200 to apply,” Contreras said. “There is justification and presentations on why we need it, being that our port of entry is crossing $30 billion in trade. The commodities that have already crossed through our port of entry, we want to capture them and have a presence at our port of entry.”
With regard to transportation, Contreras said it was a good session. He said an additional $2.5 billion would be available for road construction statewide if voters approve Proposition 5 in November. He said this money will trickle down to local communities through local Metropolitan Planning Organizations. “We could have one project, Owassa Road, that could be moved up a year and we could get funding for it,” Contreras told the Rio Grande Guardian.
As for healthcare, Contreras provided written information about House Bill 1596, which deals with a healthcare district for Hidalgo County.
At the end of the presentation, Mayor Hernandez again thanked Contreras for his efforts in Austin.
“He makes it sound very simple but it is not. It takes quite a bit of manpower and hours and staying up late and dealing with a lot of sensitive personalities at the state Capitol. Sergio has done a wonderful job and I want to make sure everyone recognizes that. He spends a lot of time up there, a lot of late nights; a lot of trips and it has all been worth our while. I want to thank you very much for all your efforts,” Hernandez said.
“It was team effort, the bridge and the EDC, everybody helped out. They all went up (to Austin at different times),” Contreras responded.
City Commissioner Edmund Maldonado, Jr., said he was concerned about the $800 million border security bill. He said he fears that having more law enforcement on the border will “deter” Winter Texans and visitors from Mexico from coming to the Valley. “Where is all this money going to come from?” Maldonado asked.
Contreras said the Valley legislative delegation was not happy with the level of oversight of the agency that is getting the lion’s share of the money, DPS. However, Contreras said Pharr “will be part of the conversation.”
Editor’s Note: The main picture accompanying this story shows Pharr’s director of external affairs, Sergio Contreras, making a presentation to the Pharr City Commission.