A local businessman has confirmed that Weslaco firefighters used department resources to fill a private swimming pool — one that now lies empty due to a leak.
“It’s broken. The water leaked out. Right now, it doesn’t function. The pool is cracked,” confirmed Daniel Almaraz, owner of a towing and used auto parts company on the outskirts of Mercedes.
Speaking in a mixture of English and Spanish, Almaraz confirmed to The Monitor that Weslaco firefighters had used a tanker truck to fill the swimming pool at the request of one of his drivers. The pool is about 10-feet by 10-feet, he said.
However, Almaraz claimed he didn’t know about the incident until he was contacted by Weslaco police earlier this month.
“An investigator called me and I didn’t understand what he was talking about, ma’am. I said, ‘Sir, what are you talking about?’” Almaraz said.
Almaraz asked the investigator when the incident occurred so he could try to confirm with his employee, who had been staying at a house in northern Weslaco that Almaraz had recently purchased.
“Since I have drivers and I’ve got various houses, that driver stays in that house. … It’s my house but I don’t live there,” Almaraz said. “I wasn’t there, but I know they did go” to fill the pool, he said.
Almaraz reiterated that he didn’t learn of the incident until after the fact.
“They came and filled the pool with a truck. So, they did come. They did come because the driver told me they did. But did I authorize that? No,” Almaraz said. “But they did come.”
“This memo is to remind all Fire Department employees, personnel, and management that City Personnel Policies, Collective Bargaining Agreement, and State Law prohibit the misuse of City and Fire Department property and personnel,” reads a Dec. 29, 2022 internal memo addressed to the fire department by Weslaco City Manager Martin Garza Jr.
When reached by The Monitor earlier this month, Garza declined to say what the incident was about. The only thing he would confirm is that the city had launched an investigation.
“On December the 19th, a recent alleged incident involving possible alleged misconduct was brought to my attention. Immediately after that, the city of Weslaco hired Mr. Juan Gonzalez… who is being asked to conduct a thorough and complete investigation of this alleged incident,” Garza said.
The incident — and the hushed nature of the resulting investigation — has, in turn, raised concerns from a statewide firefighters union, which fears Weslaco firefighters may be retaliated against.
“The TSAFF is monitoring this situation closely,” said Erin Powers, communications director for the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters.
The collective bargaining association represents many of Weslaco’s firefighters and has a presence in the fire departments of nearly 200 communities across the state.
City records show that at least one firefighter — Assistant Fire Chief Gustavo Ramirez — is the target of the investigation.
According to the agendas for the Jan. 3 and Jan. 17 Weslaco City Commission meetings, officials were slated to discuss an investigation into “the assistant fire chief” behind closed doors. However, Garza declined to confirm his name.
The Monitor obtained the assistant chief’s name from the city’s official website.
Meanwhile, Almaraz, the private business owner, remained confused over all the hullabaloo.
He said he has a long history of helping both the Weslaco fire and police departments.
Almaraz’s towing company is one of eight companies on a rotating roster that Weslaco relies upon to clear wrecked vehicles from accident scenes, he said.
And over the past five years, he has regularly donated junked cars to the fire department to practice using lifesaving equipment.
“The fire department calls me and I take them cars. I donate them to the department. We do it to help them,” Almaraz said.
When the department is done, the cars are returned to Almaraz.
“I’d take them the cars brand new and they’d return them in like three pieces,” Almaraz said.
When his driver told him that police had contacted him to ask about the pool, Almaraz didn’t seem to understand their concern, especially given his relationship with the department.
“I told the driver, ‘If you’ve always gone to help the Weslaco Fire Department, if you’ve always helped them, why are they getting mad?’ I don’t know,” Almaraz said. “I didn’t think much of it because we’ve always helped Weslaco.”
Police have asked the driver to make an official statement at the police department, Almaraz said, though he remains unclear over the concern.
“But a question — can one get in trouble for that, ma’am? We’ve always helped Weslaco,” Almaraz said. “One can get discouraged because I told him (the investigator), ‘Sir, all the years I’ve donated presents, or donated cars.’ I don’t know, ma’am. I don’t understand that.”