WESLACO, RGV – Battles between the state leadership and the bigger cities in Texas can have a negative impact on municipalities in the Rio Grande Valley, says a local city manager.

“When the elephants start fighting, the ants get stomped,” said the city manager of Laguna Vista, Rolando Vela, at a meeting he organized on Thursday.

Vela invited city officials, elected and appointed, to the offices of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council in Weslaco to discuss what is happening in the special legislative session in Austin.

Laguna Vista City Manager Rolando Vela

In early summer, Governor Greg Abbott announced a special legislative session after the Texas legislature failed to pass several bills on his agenda. The special session ends in two weeks.

Vela and other city managers in the Valley are upset at what they see as a “power grab” by the Legislature that will weaken city government.

The range of bills the Valley city leaders were most concerned about include Senate Bill 1, which restricts the ability of cities to raise property taxes, Senate Bill 18, which creates spending caps for cities, and Senate Bill 6, which limits a city’s ability to annex land.

“God forbid you should have a major natural disaster in your community,” Vela said. “It wipes out your buildings, your streets, your cars, and you have to increase the tax rate by more than five percent. What this legislation is saying, basically, is if anything is five percent, it triggers a roll back election.”

Vela said his community in Laguna Vista is very conservative, with a lot of residents relatively wealthy. “Before my time, they had three roll back elections that were defeated. I know in a lot of communities they will probably have that same reaction. So that will present a problem for many communities. It’s worth pointing out, a natural disaster, we as city managers can’t control that. We can’t control what the man upstairs does.”

Palmhurst Mayor Ramiro Rodriguez said not being able to raise property taxes to annex land would encourage the growth of colonias in the Valley. Annexation is used by cities to annex land in their jurisdiction and used to improve colonias and provide them with city services like water and sewage.

Palmhurst Mayor Ramiro J. Ramirez, Jr.

“Annexation, if I may add, they (the state leadership) see it as we’re annexing to make more property tax money for the city,” Rodriguez said. “I said wait a minute, we go in there to regulate growth so we don’t have more colonias. We have to provide water, sewer, fire, protection and ambulance service. What they’re wanting to do is to give these people that are in the outlying areas of our cities, the use of our city services, our parks and whatever and not paying anything. This doesn’t make sense.”

Rodriguez is director of Region 12 for the Texas Municipal League, which represents cities across the Lone Star State. He said TML was strongly opposed to unfunded mandates being handed down to cities by the State Legislature.

“City managers can tell you, if we don’t do it (annex land) in a certain amount of time, they (affected residents) can petition for annexation and it will be granted because we don’t provide those services. So, they (the Legislature) have got it all wrong, they’re very blind sighted.”

The city manager of Weslaco, Mike Perez, said the growing trend in Valley and other cities in Texas is to decrease property taxes, and that this mantra is the main driving force behind city legislation being considered in Austin.

“Even here when we take a look at it, people want to have reduced taxes,” Perez said. “Ask Roy what a lot more conservative elders in his community want, they want reduced taxes. In Weslaco, in Mission, they’re pushing for lowering taxes. So, they are talking to their (state) representatives to lower taxes and (that is) the issue is what they’re looking at. To try to take on the school board is too hard.”

Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez

The “Roy” Perez was talking about was Roy Rodriguez, city manager of McAllen.

Perez said Texas has been trying to pass these types of legislation for almost two decades, and instead of targeting school boards to reduce taxes, the Legislature has chosen to target municipalities.

“I mean, this is not the first time we’ve battled Austin over this issue,” Perez said. “We’ve been battling Austin on this issue for probably about, they’ve become real aggressive about attacking cities probably for the last 18 years. So, we’re the path to least resistance.”

Perez added that large developers are behind the legislation and to “follow the money” to understand the politics.

A report in mid July from Texans for Public Justice, a non-profit that tracks campaign contributions in Texas, said that Governor Abbot received $10.7 million from property development and construction companies, who advocate for weakening annexation laws, a cap on city spending and reducing property taxes.

“It’s being pushed by large developers,” Perez said. “Large developers don’t like it. I mean there is a lot of mud around and those people make a ton of money. And so they, I’m sorry, politics. You want to know what’s going on, follow the money. Follow the money.”

Roel “Roy” Rodriguez, the city manager of McAllen, concurred with Perez and said they needed to gather more people and agree on the next step forward.

“You gotta get more people in these rooms okay,” Roy Rodriguez said. “So we can agree, what are we going to do? I mean these things are going to happen, but the question is what are you going to do about it. Mike is exactly right the people driving these things are people with money.”

McAllen City Manager Roy Rodriguez

Roy Rodriguez said a bill like SB 1004, which limits the size of the fee a city can charge a telecommunication company that wants to deploy network nodes on public right-of-way, will become a financial burden on cities like McAllen.

“The City of McAllen is going to file a lawsuit on SB 1004 and the reason is because it’s going to cost you a lot of money. It’s going to cost the City of McAllen close to two million dollars a year if that bill survives,” the McAllen city manager said.

In early July, McAllen filled a lawsuit against the State of Texas over SB 1004. The bill takes effect September 1.

“The other side, the governing side, is that they’re going to allow utility companies to do whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want,” Roy Rodriguez said. “They are taking our ability to govern away from the municipalities so we need to determine what are we going to do.”

Vela said they plan on meeting early evening on Thursday, Aug. 3, at the LRGVDC offices to pull in more city officials who work during the day. The goal, Vela said, is to have a consensus with small and large cities in the Valley.

Vela said small and large cities in the Valley alike can unite in opposition to many bills currently under consideration in the special session.

“To start this effort, in which small cities and large cities, basically all the cities in the Valley, work together to educate ourselves and collaborate and basically to work together,” Vela said. “So, what’s happened in my opinion, what’s going on in Austin, has become a wake-up call for our cities locally.”

Shanna Igo visit

Following Thursday’s meeting, Vela sent an email to city officials, elected and appointed, from across the Valley to say that Shanna Igo, Texas Municipal League’s deputy executive director for legislative services, would be guest speaker at the Aug. 3 meeting. Vela said the meeting would take place at the offices of Weslaco Economic Development Corporation, at 275 S. Kansas Ave. Suite A, Weslaco. He said the meeting would start at 6 p.m.

“Shanna Igo will be updating us on the special session and what we, as cities, can do at this point. She will also share with us what we can expect at the regular legislative session that is less than two years away,” Vela said.

“President John F. Kennedy said it so eloquently: ‘A rising tide lifts all boats.’ What benefits one city, benefits all of us. That’s why it’s so important that we in the Valley all come together, regardless of city size, and start to meet to discuss how we can work together and prepare ourselves. Having Ms. Igo here will be help us tremendously towards that end.”

TML Talking Points

Palmhurst Mayor Rodriguez, director of Region 12 for the Texas Municipal League, issued talking points from the TML at the meeting of Valley city managers. The document listed the bills TML is fighting in the special session. Here is the document:

The list of issues in the Governor’s proclamation for the special session represents an all-out assault on the ability of Texas voters to decide what’s best for their communities and their neighborhoods.

From imposing revenue caps and spending caps, to overriding tree ordinances and texting while driving ordinances, no one has ever proposed such sweeping restrictions on local voters having a voice in shaping the character of their communities.

Seventy-four percent of Texans live in 1,215 towns and cities. The local decisions made by Texas voters created a formula for economic success that is the envy of the nation. Stifling the voices of Texans through an all-powerful overreaching state government will lead to economic decline and seriously damage the quality of life in urban areas.

Because every city in Texas is unique, legislators should leave decision on the following issues at the local level:

Revenue Caps (SB 1 by Bettencourt and HB 4 by Bonnen)

Cities are not the cause of high property taxes in Texas because cities collect only 16 percent of the property taxes paid by Texans statewide. That is why imposing a state cap on city revenues will not provide any meaningful tax relief. The real problem is skyrocketing local school taxes caused by the state’s failure to adequately fund education. The burden of local school district taxes will continue to grow over the next two years. While trying to mislead Texans and shift the blame to cities, the legislature approved a state budget in May that calls for a nearly 14 percent increase in local school property taxes.

Imposing a statewide cap on city revenues will not provide tax relief for homeowners but it will harm public safety, job creation and transportation funding. The largest item in every city budget is funding for police, fire fighting and emergency medical services – as much as 70 percent of the budget in some cities. Any state restrictions on city budgets will impact the ability to hire more personnel, improve salaries and benefits, upgrade technology and replace outdated equipment.

State restrictions on city revenues will reduce or eliminate discretionary spending on economic development incentives that help attract and retain job-creation businesses. Revenue restrictions will force cities to reduce or eliminate local funds that subsidize state highway construction projects which will increase traffic problems in urban areas.

Spending Caps (SB 18 by Estes and HB 206 by Villalba)

Imposing one-size-fits-all cap on the budget of every Texas city would be a disaster for Texans for many of the same reasons that apply to revenue caps. Texans should continue to decide at the local level what is best for their community.

The bills filed would limit spending growth to population growth plus inflation. Yet the level of services and spending desired by the residents of any community can vary significantly from year to the next. In addition, city governments are large employers and service providers. Their expenditures for street repairs, heavy equipment, lawsuits and employee training, pensions and health insurance are vastly different from the expenditures of a typical household.

Cities in the Panhandle must budget for snow removal which can vary from year to year. Cities that attract a large number of visitors, like San Antonio and the cities on the Gulf Coast, must provide services to more people than their resident population.

Setting one statewide spending cap that applies to every city in a state as vast and diverse as Texas is simply unworkable. The limitations on law enforcement, firefighting and emergency medical services would endanger public safety. Restricting spending for maintaining streets, parks and water, sewage and drainage systems would make Texas cities less livable and less attractive to potential employers and investors.

State legislators should trust Texans to make decisions on the local level of services they want in their community and their neighborhood.

Ending annexation (SB 6 by Campbell and HB 6 by Huberty)

Since the creation of home rule cities in Texas over 100 years ago, the process of municipal annexation has produced dynamic cities that are among the nation’s leaders in job creation and economic growth. The annexation process has proven to be the most effective and efficient way to deal with population growth and provide the essential services needed by residents and businesses.

Legislation that would allow unincorporated subdivisions to veto annexations plans would effectively freeze the current boundaries of Texas cities and begin a process of urban decline that doomed cities in other states.

When cities can’t grow, they die. When the city core begins to deteriorate, it affects the entire metropolitan region making it harder to attract and keep job-creating businesses. The slower job growth and lower incomes infect the entire state economy. A study conducted by the economic analysis firm, TXP, Inc., last year found that states that restrict annexation had lower personal income and economic growth and lower municipal bond ratings.

If the legislature had passed the proposed annexation restrictions 50 years ago, Texas today would not have cities that lead the nation in job growth and business relocations. We would not have cities with vibrant downtowns attracting people with commerce, the arts, entertainment, shopping and nightlife.

Banning local safe driving ordinances (SB 15 by Huffines and HB 171 by Goldman)

It took the state legislature more than a decade to finally pass a statewide law this year on the use of cell phones while driving. During this time, citizens in many Texas cities pushed for adoption of local ordinances to deal with the increasing number of traffic accidents caused by distracted drivers. Many of those local ordinances are more comprehensive than the recently passed state law, which contains a number exceptions and loopholes. If Texans decide they want their community to have more safety precautions than provided by state law, they should be allowed to make that choice and not have their local traffic safety rules overridden by the state.

Overriding local permitting rules (SB 12 by Buckingham, SB 13 by Burton; HB 188 by Bell; and HB 164 by Workman)

City ordinances on the issuance of a wide variety of permits are adopted in an open and transparent process that seeks input from residents and businesses. The resulting rules are tailored to the needs and concerns of the local community.

One set of these bills would backdate the grandfathering of permit vesting to the date the property was acquired. The second group would vastly accelerate permit deadlines on the city with automatic approval as the penalty.

Any claims that cities have restricted economic growth through local permitting rules are simply absurd based on all the economic indicators that show Texas cities are booming. Three out of four new jobs in Texas are created in the state’s major urban areas because they provide the services, the facilities and infrastructure businesses and their employees need to thrive. State government should not mess with the obvious success Texas cities have achieved in attracting and growing job-creating businesses.

Every Texas city is proudly unique.

Texans don’t want to be told they must confirm to one way of thinking or one way of living by overreaching big-government politicians – whether it comes from Washington or from Austin.

Let Texans decide at the local level what’s best for their community.

Editor’s Note: Reporter Steve Taylor contributed to this story from McAllen, Texas.