With early voting already underway in an election that will decide the next mayor of McAllen, the candidates made another pitch to voters during a debate Wednesday afternoon.
The five mayoral candidates took turns reiterating their positions and vision for the city as well as what they would do if elected to office during an event hosted by the LIBRE Initiative, a right-leaning nonprofit group.
On immigration, Michael Fallek said the city needs to ensure it is working with their federal partners. He wanted to ensure asylum seekers were tested for COVID-19 and put through background checks.
“We need to ensure that the federal government has an actual plan to move these people through the process outside of our city. We don’t have control over them coming in but we need to make sure and push our federal partners hard enough to be sure that they are moving outside of our city and aren’t clogging up and inundating our society.”
He said they also needed to ensure that they were being reimbursed for any costs the city incurred.
Javier Villalobos, current city commissioner for District 1, said he agreed with Fallek, adding that the city should continue limiting how much they expend on resources for migrants.
“Because you’re right, it is not a municipal issue,” Villalobos said. “It’s a federal government issue.”
Brand mostly agreed with both but deviated from Villalobos, saying that as mayor he would spend as much as he needed to help them move on from McAllen to their destination.
Current District 6 Commissioner Veronica Whitacre said the city so far had done their due diligence by helping the migrant seekers and thanked members of the community for also pitching in their time and resources.
Dr. Shahid Rashid said they couldn’t allow McAllen to become a sanctuary city and said they needed to work with the state and federal government in addressing the issue.
When it came to the local economy, Fallek said the city needed to focus on the $42.6 million the city is expected to receive through the American Rescue Plan, a rescue package passed by Congress in March.
“We need to formulate a plan to utilize those funds,” Fallek said. “It is a once in a generation opportunity to transform our society. To provide the help that we need to give to our citizens, to our small businesses.”
Villalobos said agreed the city needed to help small businesses that suffered during that pandemic but said they city was limited, statutorily, from helping businesses directly but instead could help through nonprofits or through other organizations.
Brand, however, said the majority of the funds from the rescue package needed to go to the private sector, believing the city was the least impacted during the pandemic.
Whitacre noted the city previously did help small businesses through grants and suspended utility disconnections for a few months.
Rashid lamented the city’s small health budget and said, but said the city had to be fiscally conservative in their spending by cutting down on unnecessary spending.
“We’re going to reprioritize our objectives and we’re going to revisit our budget to see how we could be able to go through this difficult time,” Rashid said.
The five candidates agreed that they wouldn’t raise property taxes on residents and also agreed that the ports of entry should be reopened to nonessential travel which would bring back sales tax revenue the city receives from Mexican shoppers.
“I know that all five of us agree on that,” Brand said. “It is a federal problem again, that affects us economically that should not.”
Fallek agreed that it was well past the time that the bridges should have been opened.
“So much of the businesses formed in McAllen, our local small businesses but also businesses from out of town that moved into our market that is dependent on that trade,” Fallek said. “We need to make sure that we get those bridges open as quickly as possible. We need to communicate that message to the federal government.”
While also in favor, Whitacre said the city had implemented a solution through the nonstop flights to and from Monterrey which would begin through the McAllen International Airport on Thursday.
However, she said had done well during the pandemic despite the decrease of shoppers from Mexico thanks to shoppers from here.
“Our own community supported our own community,” she said, adding that the city needed to be cautious and believed international shoppers should be tested for COVID-19 if the ports of entry should be opened to them again.
Rashid agreed the bridges needed to be opened quickly with safety measures such as COVID testing but disagreed on how well the city had done financially.
“We lost revenues, we had to adjust our budget and we didn’t do well,” he said. “We only did well because we had the stimulus money.”
Villalobos staunchly disagreed with Rashid’s assessment of the city’s economy, insisting that they were doing “excellent.”
“The region itself has survived beautifully. Our sales tax dollars are up. Now what has affected us is some other issues with COVID that we were able to subsidize with the (CARES Act) money and that really helped us,” Villalobos said. “But as far as the economy, otherwise — excellent.”
In response, Rashid pointed to the continued high levels of unemployment rate and poverty in the region to which Villalobos said those were not municipal issues.
“That’s the federal government, that’s the state government and some of it is county,” Villalobos said. “Municipal, we deal with water, sewer, streets, public safety, parks — those types of matters, not these matters.”
“The city of McAllen is doing great,” he said.
Early voting continues through April 27 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at three polling locations: Firemen’s Pump House at 201 N. First St.; Palm View Community Center at 3401 Jordan Ave.; and Lark Community Center at 2601 Lark Ave.
Election day is May 1.