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SAN BENITO — The new city commission is launching a series of workshops, planning to draft a budget aimed at capping proposed hikes in some of the Rio Grande Valley’s highest water rates while speeding up street repairs and boosting low employee wages.

As budget talks opened June 27, officials were awaiting the Cameron County Appraisal District’s release of its newly reappraised property values before revising revenue projections nearly a year after the city’s past commission passed a $15.8 million general fund budget.

Officials are planning to keep the city’s property tax rate at 70 cents per $100 valuation, Mayor Rick Guerra said.

“It’s a tight budget,” Gavino Sotelo, the city’s newly appointed interim city manager, said. “I’m taking a good look at everything, but we’re making sure we’re in our means.”

While proposing higher wages, officials are also planning to pay employees’ health insurance costs.

Meanwhile, officials are planning to give employees 3-percent raises based on cost-of-living increases, Sotelo said.

Sotelo said he plans to fund the $240,000 salary package through the city’s incoming revenue.

“We have to understand we have one of the poorest cities in the state and the population is an older population,” Sotelo said in an interview. “As we do the budget, we’ve got to be cognizant of that. While we have a lot of need, we’re going to be cognizant of the community we serve.”

Proposing to cap water rates

Nearly two months after his landslide victory helped sweep in the new commission, Guerra said his priorities include capping a proposed five-year series of water rate hikes while boosting low employee wages.

“We still need to look at the budget. That’s our biggest beef — trying to keep the water rates low and still paying our debt,” he said, referring to debt payment stemming from the construction of the city’s $17 million water plant. “I hope we can move forward and get this accomplished. I hope it brings relief to people who have water rates on their mind.”

In 2022, the past commission, based on a water rate study recommended by former City Manager Manuel De La Rosa, passed an ordinance calling for a 10-percent increase in household water rates spread out over a five-year period.

One of the city of San Benito’s two water treatment plants is pictured Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, on Turner Street in San Benito. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Based on a schedule, the first household water rate hike would go into effect next year.

Meanwhile, the ordinance would raise commercial water rates from 8.3 percent to as much as 9.8 percent each year over five years, based on water usage.

The first commercial rate hike kicked in last year.

Last year, the past commission called for the water rate hikes as part of a plan to offset a $2.8 million deficit in the utility department.

While officials were tapping into the city’s general fund budget to cover annual shortfalls, the utility system’s long-term debt had bulged to $19.39 million.

Planning utility operational costs

At City Hall, Sotelo said he’s planning on cutting the utility department’s operational costs to avoid raising water rates.

“That is my number-one goal — to be able to operate without a rate increase,” he said. “We have to lower the cost of operation.”

Now, crews are working to replace leaking water pipes, he said.

“We lose a lot of water due to water breaks,” he said. “We have two or three breaks a day. We have pipe to replace.”

Officials are planning to fund utility system upgrades through part of the city’s remaining $7 million share of the federal American Rescue Plan Act, Sotelo said.

The City of San Benito’s Waste Water Lift Station #5 is pictured Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, on East Powers Street in San Benito. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Sotelo, who previously served as the Laguna Madre Water District’s general manager, said he worked to cut the water system’s operational costs while keeping down rates despite a recommendation to boost them.

“We were able to cut cost and still provide services without increasing rates,” he said.

Street project, employee wages

As part of the proposed budget, officials are planning to fund a $1.5 million street paving project, Sotelo said.

“We’re going to try to get more projects out of the door,” he said. “I want to accelerate those projects. I want to see dirt fly.”

Like Guerra, Commissioner Pete Galvan said he’s pushing for higher employee wages.

“An increase in pay is important,” Galvan said. “You have to take care of your labor force. We want people who can meet the needs of the city. You have to invest in the employees.”

For years, the city’s employees have complained of low wages, leading many to take jobs in other cities.

“I’d like to provide a living wage to employees. We don’t have sufficient money to give employees a good pay raise,” Sotelo said. “We have a lot of turnover. We’re losing a lot of people, especially those with the most experience.”

Meanwhile, officials are considering funding employees’ health insurance averaging about $84 a month, he said.

“The insurance is one of the biggest complaints the workers have,” Guerra said.