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Colonia resident Emma Alaniz thanks legislators at a celebration of the passage of streetlights legislation at LUPE’s San Juan HQ last Friday.

SAN JUAN, RGV – All Hidalgo County families should be able to live in safe and healthy communities. Yet around 85 percent of neighborhoods outside of city limits lack streetlights, according to county estimates.

Without streetlights, colonia residents suffer a range of problems. Neighborhood streets are dangerous places for children to be active after sunset. Adults struggling with diabetes and heart problems have nowhere safe to walk outside. Dark neighborhoods provide cover for vandalism and theft. Low visibility causes otherwise avoidable accidents.

For more than two decades, colonia residents have petitioned Hidalgo County for the installation of streetlights, to put an end to the needless risks and ensure community safety. With the help of former Rep. Gonzales’ help, La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) and fellow colonia organization ARISE (A Resource in Serving Equality), passed legislation in 2005 and 2007 that provided the County with the legal framework to implement a public light system. Both LUPE and ARISE are members of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network and we have been working on streetlights in colonias for many years. Since 2013, we have been pressing county officials to use their authority to install streetlights in colonias.

State Sen. Juan Hinojosa speaks at a LUPE/ARISE news conference.
State Sen. Juan Hinojosa speaks at a LUPE/ARISE news conference.

We are now asking Hidalgo County Commissioners Court to create a plan that would install public light infrastructure and collect from residents a fee for the consumption of electricity by those lights. We realize bringing public light to colonias will be a major endeavor. In January of this year, county commissioners committed to implementing a pilot program in a small number of carefully selected colonias to work out the kinks of a wider streetlights program. The creation of the pilot program is essential to the creation of a wider public light program by allowing the county to work out the kinks of such a plan.

Nelly Curiel, who lives in colonia Goolie Meadows, one of the colonias selected for the pilot program, said she and her neighbors are ready to start the pilot program. Nelly has been walking door-to-door in her neighborhood explaining the pilot program to her neighbors and gaining their commitment to pay for the electricity used by the streetlights. “We have faith in the commissioners that they, too, will be ready to start,” Nelly said.

This legislative session, colonia residents worked with county officials and state legislators to pass House Bill 3002, a bill that gives the county additional tools and authority to install streetlights in county neighborhoods. The bill was authored by state Representatives Armando ‘Mando’ Martinez and Sergio Muñoz, Jr., and sponsored by state Senator Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa.

Emma Alaniz, a leader and member of LUPE from colonia Curry Estates, said she and her neighbors are celebrating because their colonia will “finally come out of the shadows” with the new streetlights bill. She said her colonia is ready for when the law goes into effect. “Now that we have the law on our side, we’re going to be sure that the commissioners implement it,” Emma said.

Under legislation passed in 2007, Hidalgo County already had the authority to install streetlights along county roads, and to collect a fee from neighborhood residents who benefit from those streetlights to pay for the electricity the lights use. House Bill 3002 creates a process for collecting that fee by requiring the county tax assessor to place the fee on the annual property tax bill of the property owners who benefit from the streetlights.

The county will still need to take steps to adopt that process, and neighborhoods will need to apply to have streetlights installed on an individual basis. But thanks to this bill, the whole process will be much more straightforward and carry the authority of state law.

Still, colonia organizations LUPE and ARISE believe it clears away the last remaining barriers to implementing streetlights in Hidalgo County. County officials now have the authorization of the Texas Legislature to use the county tax assessor to collect for the electricity used by the streetlights. They can now begin to install streetlights on a wide scale.

House Bill 3002 will go into effect on the 1st of September. The pilot program will help the county be ready once the law goes into effect.

Editor’s Note: The above op-ed has been modified from a column John-Michael Torres wrote for LUPE’s online newsletter. Click here to visit the LUPE website. The photos in the slideshow were also provided by LUPE.