Senator’s water district bill sparks war of words in McAllen

McALLEN — Shots were fired Tuesday in the water war that has plagued the political scene here.

It started with a statement McAllen mayoral candidate Othal Brand Jr. fired off Tuesday morning in response to a scathing news release Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa sent last week announcing he had filed Senate Bill 2185. The bill seeks to dissolve Hidalgo County Water Improvement District (HCWID) No. 3 and give its rights and responsibilities to the city of McAllen.

In his announcement last week, Hinojosa said there was “no greater waste of taxpayer money” than the continuation of the district and accused its chairman and general manager, Othal Brand Jr., of mismanaging the district and using it to enrich himself.

That didn’t sit well with Brand, who is running for McAllen mayor after a failed attempt in 2017. So on Tuesday, Brand accused the senator of “grandstanding” and called the bill an “illegal power grab” that was “doomed to fail.”

“The first three times his legislation went down in flames. We are confident the same fate awaits this latest piece of thuggery,” Brand said about Hinojosa’s fourth attempt to pass the legislation.

The mayoral candidate went on to tout the district’s low prices and insinuated the McAllen Public Utilities Board (PUB) was instead responsible for a seemingly hike in the price of water.

“HCWID No. 3 supplies water to the City of McAllen at 29-plus cents per 1,000 gallons of water. The City then sells that water to local residents at anywhere between $1.35 and $1.65 per thousand gallons,” Brand wrote. “As a result, McAllen PUB is the biggest money maker of any department in the city.”

That’s where McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez, who had previously declined to comment on the situation, and McAllen Public Utility General Manager Marco A. Vega drew a line.

“It is ludicrous to explain the water process this way,” Rodriguez said about Brand’s characterization of water prices. “It continues to tell me and the city of McAllen that they just do not understand how this works.”

Yes, McAllen buys water from the district at 29 cents per 1,000 gallons, but the issue is not so simple, Rodriguez said.

“What district 3 does is pump water from the river to our reservoir, what we call raw water. And there’s a reason it’s called raw water, because it is very, very dirty water,” he said, noting Mexico releases its wastewater directly into the river. “Then we’ve got to take that water and go through the water process, which is filtration, purification, disinfection and distribution — and that we charge $1.35 for.”

Vega called water treatment a “highly sophisticated and regulated process” that involves a number of resources, “including chemicals, facilities and personnel to operate.”

“McAllen does not provide the citizens of McAllen the untreated water that is received from HWID#3 for residential or commercial consumption,” Vega wrote in an email to The Monitor, noting that McAllen provides its residents water at one of the lowest rates statewide and the second lowest rate in the Valley. “Untreated water is ONLY suitable for agricultural uses.”

Rodriguez went as far as accusing Brand of intentionally trying to skew the issue.

“If the community reads this, they think that we’re a ripoff,” he said about the way pricing was presented. “So it sounds to me, again, like a deliberate attempt to mislead the public… You would die — literally — you would die if you drink that water.”

And as far as the district’s low rates, Rodriguez and Vega said they’re about 80% higher than the city’s other water providers. Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No.1 sells its water at 16 cents per 1,000 gallons and Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 2 sells its water at 15 cents.

“So let’s take this into context — sure, you sell it to us at 29, but the next guy sells it at 16. So it’s very expensive raw water that we’ve got to buy from this district,” Rodriguez said.

And the city has to purchase it from those districts because of water rights, Rodriguez added.

“So I can’t take that water right from district 3 and move it over to district 2. It doesn’t work that way,” the city manager said. “That’s a water right that’s held in trust by those districts to supply the cities.”

Brand, however, argued that unlike other water districts, District No. 3 has always been reliable, especially when McAllen residents needed it most: after Hurricane Dolly and the recent February freeze, when thousands of families lost access to water.

“HCWID No. 3 has been a great steward of taxpayer money, investing in state-of-the-art equipment that is the envy of other water districts,” Brand said.

That includes a water pump positioned above the height of the levees, which ensures the pump station is never flooded.

“For three months following the floods caused by 2008’s Hurricane Dolly, HCWID No. 3 supplied 98% of all the water consumed in McAllen,” Brand said. “This was because, during the floods, two other local water districts could not reliably supply water to the city.”

And it happened again just two months ago, he added.

“We were the only reliable water source, and the only water district with totally uninterrupted power, thanks to our backup generators. No other district had backup generators,” he said. “The city of McAllen was so confident of our supply during the freeze they sold water to four other entities that either did not have enough water or no water.”

Brand also defended his management of the district following a state auditor’s report in 2012 that cited “significant weaknesses in the management of its finances and operations.”

“Those weaknesses exist largely because the District has not established a framework to provide for effective governance, oversight, and planning,” the report stated.

Brand claimed Tuesday the report’s conclusion had more to do with policies and procedures.

“They brought down six or eight people and spent six months investigating us. The only thing they could come up with was, quote, ‘weak management’ because the water district did not have a 3-inch ream of policies and procedures for an office staff of two people,” he said. “No misappropriation, no money missing, no $2 million that the senator and others were telling the governor was missing. They made that up.”

And while the report said “auditors did not find evidence of misappropriation of funds,” they found a “lack of financial controls over many of its financial transactions could affect its ability to operate within its means and could create opportunities for misappropriation to occur without detection.”

Brand, however, didn’t acknowledge what Hinojosa referred to as an “abuse of power” and a “conflict of interest” when the district contracted businesses that were owned or operated by Brand.

“From fiscal year 2008 through fiscal year 2011, the District spent $106,000 for services provided by businesses that were owned by or controlled by the individual who is both the District’s general manager and the president of the District’s board,” the report stated.

And while those services may have been provided, “auditors were unable to determine the appropriateness of the transactions” because of the “district’s lack of policies and inconsistent handling of issues regarding potential conflicts of interest,” the document stated.

Hinojosa pushed back on Brand’s notion that his bill is simply an attempt to grandstand.

“To me it’s about doing what’s right for the public,” Hinojosa said. “I carry 89-90 bills. If anyone’s grandstanding, he’s the one that’s grandstanding. We created this water district. And if I see inefficiencies, I see mismanagement, I see abuse of power and authority, we as a state will react… So grandstanding? No. I’m just doing my job.”

Brand, however, cautioned about the possible ramifications of passing S.B. 2185.

“This is a slippery slope for other water districts. They know they will be next on the chopping block if this bill becomes law,” he said.

Hinojosa disagreed.

“It’s not a slippery slope. It’s only aimed at water district number 3,” he said.

But even former Gov. Rick Perry, who ordered the district’s audit after he vetoed a similar bill by Hinojosa, warned about the implications in a letter he sent to the state auditor’s office.

“This would have set a troubling precedent,” Perry wrote about Hinojosa’s prior legislation.