Mayoral candidates: character surfaces as most revealing plank in their platforms

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As the upcoming General Election moves to its conclusion, Laredoans wield the power of the vote to decide who will best serve the future of this City, who has a grasp on infrastructure, what the preservation of green spaces means to quality of life, who thinks forward, and whose ethics are unimpeachable.

A side-by-side comparison of the top priorities of the three candidates for mayor — incumbent Mayor Pete Saenz Jr. and challengers Charlie San Miguel and Roque Vela Jr. — spell telling contrasts about the character of each man, how informed he is, and what he intends to do if elected.

Saenz was elected Mayor in a resounding victory in 2014; San Miguel was first elected District VI Council member in Nov. 2010 and re-elected in 2014 to the second term he is now concluding; and Vela served served one term as the City Council member for District V from 2012 to 2016.

WHO’S BEEN ARRESTED?

Two candidates have been arrested — San Miguel for taking out trees on Country Club Road with his vehicle; Vela once in a 1996 Texas Department of Public Safety drug sting in San Antonio for possession of 22 pounds of marijuana that he had shipped to himself from Laredo by UPS, another for a 1997 fistfight in Abilene, and a third for a 2002 domestic violence incident in which he tried to choke his sister with his hands at the family’s bowling alley business.

Saenz has never been arrested.

PLATFORMS

Mayor Saenz has stayed his campaign’s course with these four issues:

  • Continue to change the culture of corruption at city hall, and improve business-friendly, fair and ethical city practices;
  • Create more disposable income by reducing the City property tax rate, and not increasing resident user fees.
  • Continue to dedicate capital and invest in infrastructure, (new and inner city).
  • Introduce City Charter amendments so the ethics commission is not directly appointed by City Council, but rather by an independent body, possibly by federal judges or magistrates.

If elected, San Miguel aspires to:

  • Improve communication with City residents by having City Council meetings, two per quarter, in each of the City’s eight districts.
  • Capitalize on NAFTA 2.0; invite maquila plants to locate to Laredo; welcome the creation of $16/hour minimum wage jobs per 2.0.
  • Establish equal pay for women in City employment, thereby setting an example for others to follow; take steps to establish a living wage policy.
  • Expedite international trade by focusing on traffic flow to and from the bridges to IH-35 with connectors like Vallecillos Road and the Hachar-Reuthinger Parkway.

Vela has said he will work to:

  • Freeze rising appraisals.
  • Freeze rising water rates.
  • Pick up trash twice a week.
  • Establish a no-kill City animal shelter.

While Vela could find success for the last two of his four priorities, freezing appraisals would not be within his power.

And freezing increases in water rates is not likely to come to fruition without recalibrating the $400 million debt in capital improvement projects for water/wastewater across town.

APPRAISAL VALUES REGULATED BY TEXAS TAX CODE, NOT LOCAL ELECTED OFFICIALS

Laredo real estate broker Zoraida Jackson, secretary of the Webb County Appraisal Review Board, called Vela’s claim that he could ‘freeze rising appraisals’ “irresponsible, ignorant, and appalling.” She added, “That is blatantly false and legally impossible. Appraisal values are determined by market value and regulated by the Texas Tax Code (Sect. 23.01). No local elected officials can change that.”

ANNUAL WATER RATE INCREASES BOUND

BY BOND COVENANT UNTIL 2037

As to Vela being able to “freeze rising water rates,” — that may, too, be beyond his reach.

The City’s water rates increase by two percent every October first until 2037 to service a $400 million Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for the City’ utility water and wastewater system.

According to City Utilities director Riazul Mia, the two percent annual increase in water rates is bound by a bond covenant. He explained the scope of projects in the $400 million bond debt — among them the $100 million price tag for the El Pico Water Plant; water and sewer lines to service new developments; water storage tanks on Bartlett, Shiloh, and in Cuatro Vientos; the South Laredo waste water treatment plant; and replacing aged 24-inch and 36-inch water lines.

“The annual two percent increase implemented every October is enough to service the $400 million bond debt, but we have new needs, too. We are finalizing a rate study now,” said Martin Alemán, the City’s executive director of finance.

Alemán said a proposed rate adjustment for the next five years will fund a new $82 million water/wastewater Community Improvement Plan to support growth and slowly replace the 300 miles of 40-year-old cast iron pipes in the system. “We are spending about $7 million annually on the replacement of water lines,” he said, adding, that the $82 million does not include funds for a secondary water source, which could bear a cost of $130 to $200 million.

Asked if it was possible to halt increases in water rates, Alemán said, “We could possibly delay some of these projects, but that is not a good option since the CIPs are intended to address the rapid growth and development we are experiencing.”

The annual two percent increase in water rates until 2037 was brought to you in 2007 by ordinance by former Mayor Raul Salinas and then-City Council members Mike Garza, Juan Narvaez, Michael Landek, Johnny Amaya, Johnny Rendon, Hector García, Juan Ramirez, and Gene Belmares.

SIDEBAR

I’ve digressed here, intending as I write to say that a glib and wily mayoral candidate does not translate to being the most informed or forward-thinking man in the race.

This race is about character. In their own words, it is what has surfaced about the mayoral candidates throughout debates over the course of the campaign.

Half-truths are half-lies, and the inclination to settle a difference with raised fists settles nothing.

There is no place in the taxpayer-funded enterprise of running our City efficiently for a woefully uninformed tap-dancing bully.

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