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Donna City Hall in an undated photo.

DONNA — Faced with more than $40 million worth of sorely needed infrastructure improvements that officials here can’t find outside funding for, Donna is instead trying to offset projected costs by raising utility rates.

But thus far, those price hikes have only been applied to two commercial users — a raw materials recycler, and the Donna tent facility south of town where U.S. Customs and Border Protection temporarily houses undocumented migrants.

“Upon direction from the city manager, what we have before you is a proposal to increase rates — water and sewer rates — for recycling centers within city limits,” Donna Public Utilities Director Jonas A. Gonzalez said during a city council meeting earlier this month.

Under the proposal, not only would the base monthly rate for water and sewer service increase, but so would the per-thousand-gallons usage rate.

“With this ordinance, it would go from $4.64 per thousand gallons (for) 0-6,000 (gallons), to $13.92,” Gonzalez said.

Similarly, the cost for 6,000-15,000 gallons of usage would go up to $15.03 per thousand gallons, and $19.86 for each additional thousand gallons after that, he said.

“Typically, if somebody has a $500 bill for a recycling center for average usage, it would probably go up to closer to $2,000 (per month),” Gonzalez said.


The proposal represents a 300% rate increase for a highly specific kind of commercial water customer in Donna — in this case, a recycling center that focuses on recycling raw materials, such as “steel, aluminum, whatnot,” Gonzalez said.

That customer could expect their annual water and sewer bill to go from $6,000 to $24,000.

“There is Silver Recycling,” Gutierrez said during an April 2 council meeting. He was referring to W. Silver Recycling Inc. located off U.S. Business 83 on the west side of town.

“I think at this point, there’s just one,” Gonzalez said in response to a question by Place 3 Donna Councilman Ernesto Lugo about how many such facilities operate in the city.

The city council discussed the matter at length, before unanimously approving the rate hike on a motion by Place 2 Councilman Jose “Joey” Garza Jr. and a second by Lugo.

However, it’s not the first time in recent months that the council has targeted a specific commercial user for a water and wastewater rate hike.


In February, the council approved a similar rate increase for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which operates a temporary migrant processing facility not far from the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge.

Known as the Donna Processing Center, the 185,000 square foot “soft sided” tent facility sits on 40 acres of land off of Farm-to-Market Road 493 and has been in operation since February 2021.

CBP leases the land from the city for hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

At the height of its occupancy, some 4,100 migrants were held in the tent facility, including 3,200 unaccompanied children, according to a March 31, 2021 report by CBS News.

By July 2023, however, when the U.S. Office of the Inspector General conducted an unannounced inspection of the facility, only 732 migrants were being held there.

Nonetheless, Donna officials say the migrant holding center places an undue burden on the city’s already struggling water and wastewater infrastructure.

And that, they say, warrants a hefty increase in the utility rates the facility pays.

“They utilize about 17% of our capacity,” Gonzalez said during a Feb. 6 city council meeting.

Migrants wait to enter the intake area at the Donna Processing Center, run by the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley in Donna, Texas on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills, Pool)

“We’re a 1.8 million gallon facility. We were below 1.7, and they showed up it moved from below 1.7 to above. So, we estimated they’re putting about 300,000 gallons of sewage into our system daily,” Gonzalez added a moment later.

With the rates as they stood then, the facility paid approximately $188,000 annually for water and sewer service, Gonzalez said.

The public utilities director recommended doubling the water and sewer rates that the Donna tent facility pays; however, after some discussion, city leaders themselves suggested tripling the facility’s costs, or going even higher than that.

“Those guys make a ton of money, these are government contractors. I think we should at least triple their rates, in my opinion. It’s a good revenue source. I mean, where are they gonna go?” Councilman Lugo said during that meeting.

At the end of their discussion, the council unanimously approved the first reading of the ordinance to double the tent facility’s utility rates.

However, they also directed City Manager Carlos Yerena to look into the possibility of tripling the rate during the final reading of the ordinance, which took place on March 5.


The rate hikes for the two commercial customers come as Donna scrambles to find a way to rehabilitate its aging and collapsing infrastructure — especially at the wastewater treatment plant.

According to city leaders, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, has issued the city a number of warnings about the state of its infrastructure.

“We are in a unique situation because we have a capacity issue and TCEQ has been on our tail, you know, citing us. So it’s kind of a unique situation because we need capacity,” Yerena, the city manager, said during the February meeting.

Not only is the city’s sewer plant stretching capacity limitations, but the machinery itself has begun to break down.

Over the last two to three years, the city council has approved a number of “emergency” or urgent repairs on everything from clarifiers, to valves, to sludge tanks.

In September 2022 alone, the council approved a $376,000 expenditure on the emergency repair of a ground storage tank whose bottom had developed substantial cracks.

The Wastewater Treatment Plant in Donna is seen in this undated photo. (Courtesy: City of Donna/Facebook)

Donna’s entire water and sewer infrastructure system needs a multimillion dollar overhaul.

“We do have capacity issues at our sewer plant … and if we want to address those issues, it’s going to be a $40 million expenditure to address them,” Yerena said during the April 2 meeting.

But the city has been unable to find funding assistance to help defray costs.

Donna’s attempts to secure funding from the Texas Water Development Board, which often provides low- or no-interest loans, as well as limited grants, have been denied, Gonzalez has said in previous meetings.

Meanwhile, elected officials are loath to pass infrastructure costs onto Donna’s residential consumers — up to half of whom face water disconnection notices each month.

“If we have 6,000 accounts, about half of those accounts make it to disconnection every month,” Gonzalez said earlier this month.

That’s why officials have been focusing rate increases on specific high-volume commercial users.

“We are looking at some of the major industrial users so that we can alleviate the impact on residents,” Yerena said.