The comments ranged from support to dismay that the council did not have a more solid idea of the scope of a project intended to solve the city’s anticipated water supply problems.
One city resident, Rogerio Galvan, criticized the council for not seeking any citizens’ input on the proposed project before putting the issue up to the voters and asked that the election on the bond issue be postponed until November.
Mayor Santiago “Jimbo” Martinez explained that the committee which studied the proposal was the City Council.
The mayor said the project was designed after the city received a report prepared by HDR Inc., a Corpus Christi engineering firm which studied groundwater possibilities that the city could use.
When Galvan asked if the report had been released, Martinez said it had been released two weeks earlier.
“But the election was already called,” Galvan said.
At that point, City Manager Deborah Ballí explained that the council needed to act quickly. She said that drilling wells into the Evangeline and Jasper aquifers and building a reverse osmosis plant, as is being proposed by the city in the bond election, would take about 18 months.
The city could be out of water in two years, Ballí said. Although Beeville had not been given formal notice of the two-year situation, she had been told that several times recently at a regional water supply planning group in Corpus Christi.
The group is made up of communities that take municipal water supplies from Lake Corpus Christi.
That includes Alice, Mathis and Beeville. Ballí said each of those cities has been looking into drilling wells to replace a dwindling water supply in the lake.
At one point during the town hall session, John Valls, a consultant working with Ballí, defended the council, saying the group “is not working in a vacuum. Water gives you life.”
Valls said representatives of the city have been going to Austin regularly to speak with lawmakers concerning water problems in South Texas.
He said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurt has made water the main focus during this year’s legislative session.
Valls then suggested that the council would have a problem getting citizens to serve on a commission to study the impending water problem
That prompted local attorney Tom Beasley to protest, saying Valls should not be “debating” citizens during a town hall meeting. He said that the purpose of that part of the meeting was for the council to hear comments from the public and not to advocate a project.
City Attorney Frank Warner echoed Beasley’s statement, saying that the council and staff were not at the meeting to debate.
“I’m not debating,” Valls answered.
Beasley said it was selling the city short to claim that citizens would not serve on a task force to study water supply alternatives.
“One of the big problems was that the project appeared out of the blue,” Beasley said. He reminded the council that a lot of the people in the city are on fixed incomes and could not afford a substantial tax increase.
Beasley asked engineer Jesús Leal of NorrisLeal Engineering Water about the plans to build a reverse osmosis plant to treat water from the Jasper aquifer.
“Until Feb. 26, I never had any idea we were going to an RO plant,” Beasley said.
He then asked Leal about the expense and operation of an RO plant, saying he had read that such plants were costly to build and could require more than one operator at a time.
Leal said the technology has improved in recent years, making an RO plant as cost effective as conventional water treatment plants.
The engineer said costumers of the North Alamo Water Supply system in Donna pay $1.35 for 1,000 gallons of water.
Leal also said that the Donna plant runs automatically, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Beasley asked about repairs needed on the pipeline that runs between the George P. Morrill, I Water Treatment Plant at Swinney Switch and the city. He said he had heard it could take about $4.2 million to make those repairs.
“I tried to raise that issue three years ago,” Beasley said.
“That’s right,” Galvan said.
Businessman Gilbert Herrera, who had spoken in favor of the project earlier in the session, then reminded those at the meeting that the city could sell the concentrated brackish water that would be left over after the Jasper well water was treated by the RO plant. Money made by selling that water to oil companies for fracturing shale formations in the oil field could be used to retire the bonds sold to finance the project.
Herrera had said earlier in the meeting that he was surprised to see that some residents were dead set against the project.
“I don’t understand what the fuss is about,” Herrera said. He told those at the meeting that he had driven out to Lake Corpus Christi where the city takes its water and was “saddened” to see how much the lake level had dropped during three years of continuous drought.
He said when he asked what the plan was for dealing with the dwindling supply of water in the lake, he was told planners were hoping for a hurricane.
“We’re now on the verge of making a historical decision,” Herrera said. He then compared voting down the bond issue for the new water system to voting down a bond issue for the Beeville Independent School District several years ago. Since then, Herrera said, the quality of education in Beeville has declined.
Herrera said a sign he had seen posted in the city suggesting that voters turn down the bond proposal had suggested that the sale would increase property taxes by 49 percent.
“I don’t believe that,” Herrera said.
Another resident, Dwight Head, said he liked the idea of building an RO plant and said he knew that the cost had gone down in recent years.
But Head was also concerned about leaks in the surface water line from Swinney Switch.
He also wanted to know why the city had not maintained its original wells. He said city residents were told those wells would be maintained.
Martinez told Head that the city had paid for a study of the old wells and the engineers had assured them that the wells were too old to be rehabilitated. He said the council had been told that it would be cheaper to drill new wells.
Martinez assured those at the meeting that a 28 cent per $100 valuation increase in property taxes would be a worst case scenario. He was fairly certain that other methods of funding the repayment of the bonds could substantially reduce the need for higher taxes.
The mayor and city manager reminded those at the meeting that the city was seeking legislative permission to use as much as $400,000 a year in hotel and motel occupancy taxes to pay the anticipated $800,000 annual debt service.
Ballí also said that the 3.9 percent anticipated interest rate on the bonds probably would be substantially less than that. And the council is interested in tweaking water rates because many of the customers who use city water live outside the city limits and that would allow them to escape higher property taxes.
“We’ll know more by the end of May,” Ballí said. “We’ll look at keeping tax rates as low as possible.”
Valls then explained that investors who buy municipal bonds prefer to purchase them if they are to be backed by property tax rates. Taxes are more stable than water rates, he said.
City resident Jessy T. Garza asked about the cost of drilling wells and Leal explained that the city could drill two wells in the same location as long as it was tapping into two different aquifers. Also, by keeping the wells on city property, there would be no limits on how much water could be pumped from those wells.
Businessman Jeff Latcham had asked about another project he had heard about in which the city could drill multiple wells into the Evangeline aquifer and build a scaled down RO plant which could be expanded later using savings from purchases of surface water from Lake Corpus Christi.
That project could cost an estimated $8 million, about $4 million less than the proposed two wells and a larger RO plant.
“Is that not being proposed?” Latcham asked.
Ballí said the city has a number of different configurations it could use in designing a groundwater system. But each of those would need to be vetted before a final decision is made.
Engineers have said they will need to drill the first two wells and have the water from them tested before they know what the final design will be.
The session ended with questions by Armando Musquez and Carlos Perez. Both men wanted to know how the City Council could bring a bond election to the voters when the city was not sure exactly of the configuration of a new system and what the exact costs would be.
“This is a difficult pill for the community to take,” Garza said. “But the bottom line is we are where we are today and we’ve got to do something. I’ve got to have faith that you’re going to do all you can to minimize the cost to this community.”
That meeting was the last of three town hall sessions scheduled by the council before the May 11 bond election.
Early voting begins Monday at City Hall. It runs 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday, April 29, through Friday, May 3.
Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at reporter@mySouTex.com.