EDINBURG, RGV – Secretary of State Carlos Cascos has called on the State of Texas to make a major investment in border colonias to take them out of Third World status.
Cascos wants to millions of dollars allocated to ensure the 400,000 to 500,000-plus border colonia residents have basic water and wastewater services and that they no longer have to rely on a privy – a small shed outside a house – for a bathroom.
“I don’t know how popular it is going to be because there is no romance in it. But, it is the right thing to do. We have 400,000 to 500,000 people that live along the border in colonias. And there has really been no significant investment made in bringing some of these Third World living conditions into the 2st Century,” Cascos said.
“I have a difficult time at times talking about Texas and how great the growth is, and it is all true. Yet, I visit colonias that to this day still have out door privies, that don’t have water and wastewater. Forget about the paved streets and street lighting, if your basic fundamentals of a good life, with kids having to walk to school literally in the mud, that is what I would like to talk about. That is what I would like our state legislature to take a look at.”
Cascos made his remarks as keynote speaker at a luncheon hosted by the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce and held at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance.
“I know it is expensive but you have got to do it one step at a time. You have got to do it in baby steps. If it is going to take a billion dollars to fix the colonias, fine but you have got to start somewhere. Whether it is allocating $50 million, $30 million, $100 million, at the end of the day it is only money. But we cannot continue to prosper the way the state deserves to prosper if we don’t take care of the colonias we have along our border. It is going to take time but it has got to start somewhere,” Cascos told the audience.
Interviewed after his speech, Cascos said he wanted to send out a message about colonias because there were state legislators in the audience. He said those legislators – state Reps. Bobby Guerra and Terry Canales – represent colonia residents. “If anything, I just wanted to throw it out there. It is going to be a tight budget, legislatively, next session and I have heard it would take over a billion dollars to fix the colonias. Well okay, but I do not want the size of that number to make us say, okay, let’s not do anything at all. I am saying, consider looking at colonias. There is no romance in them. To me it is part of the puzzle of what makes Texas great.”
Cascos pointed out that the Secretary of State’s office has an ombudsperson program to help colonia residents. He said the program has a budget that allows for one point of contact in some of the larger border counties. He said he would like the program expanded and has asked its staff members to raise their profile.
“The job of the ombudsman is to facilitate things. I want take things a stage further. I want to be a little bit more active. I have visited colonias in El Paso and I am very familiar with the colonias down here (in the Rio Grande Valley). Even though I cannot legislate or lobby I can certainly do all I can to enhance the program I already have. My role is to be a Texas ambassador, to promote economic development. If we want to continue doing that we cannot forget 400,000 to 500,000 people that live along the border in colonias. I have been to some of these colonias and still they have horrible living conditions. Many still do not have water or wastewater.”
Cascos said he set up a committee in the Secretary of State’s office six months ago with the idea of giving the border ombudsperson program a little bit more latitude in the work it does. “I asked the staff, have you been to a commissioners’ court meeting? Have you told them who you are and what you do? Have you told them how you can help? Sometimes people are afraid to rock the boat. Well, we have a half million-dollar budget for the ombudsman and I do not know if we are getting a big enough bang for our buck.”
Before becoming Secretary of State, Cascos was Cameron County Judge. Before that he was a Cameron County Commissioner. Asked what he was able to do to help colonia residents in those capacities, Cascos said: “As county judge and as a commissioner I was able to take local money and fix the colonias, as best we could. But it is going to be tough for local government to take care of the whole colonias issue. Maybe we need to consider having one centralized agency that looks at colonia issues. Every colonia is different, although there are some inherent commonalities. The real, true, bad colonias have no water, no wastewater lines. They are still using outdoor privies. Cameron Park, which I represented back in the early 1990s, they had outdoor privies. This was not that long ago.”
A reporter pointed out to Cascos that, for many legislative sessions, state Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville has gone to Austin to push for counties to be granted greater authority so they can regulate and plan development to help stop the proliferation of colonias. The reporter pointed out that Lucio’s efforts have always been rebuffed, with opposition coming from lobbyists representing land and housing developers.
Cascos responded: “That is a challenge. I want to commend Senator Lucio for that initiative. That is something I spoke in favor of as a county judge and county commissioner, giving counties limited ordinance-making ability to help alleviate some of that. Maybe one way to do it would be to limit it to border counties. Give border counties that option so we can control the proliferation of colonias at the local level. I understand people are building what they can afford to build but we have to have a uniform building code, a uniform permitting code, a uniform electrical code. It is not unusual for people to draw electricity via an electrical line from one household to another because they have no connection.”
Asked what he would consider success in “fixing” colonias, Cascos said: “Our goal is to eliminate all outdoor privies within the next ten years, making sure everyone has access to water and wastewater. In some cases, we can take water to the property line, but then the resident cannot afford the tap in fees. Well, there has to be a mechanism for that, assisting them to do that. Let’s set that as a goal. We like to set expectations for job creation, well, why do we not set a goal for eliminating outdoor privies in the colonias?”
Cascos added: “Some colonias already have paved streets, like Cameron Park. They have water and wastewater lines. They have good housing. It is getting better. Now they want lights. Perhaps that is how you get a colonia off the inventory list. Water, wastewater, paved streets, adequate drainage and lighting in the colonias. There is nothing wrong with that. But I think the priority should be getting water and wastewater to every household.”