City continues budget, traffic talks

Port Isabel-South Padre Press

The City’s continuing financial concerns, as well as weekend traffic woes, were the main items of discussion during the Port Isabel City Commission’s regular meeting Tuesday.

Following up on a presentation he gave during a special meeting last week, Interim City Manager Jared Hockema discussed in more detail possible solutions to rectify the City’s budget deficit. The commission expressed some concern over the slashing of capital expenditures, but Hockema reassured them the situation is not as dire as it appears.

Commissioner Juan Jose “J.J.” Zamora spoke of City streets, the repairs of which fall under the City’s capital expenditures. “We’re not doing the street (repairs) that we’re supposed to be doing because we don’t have the money,” Zamora said.

“With the current funds that we have in the budget right now we have ordered some cold mix, and we ordered 20 tons of cold mix,” Hockema said. The material will be used to patch potholes, he said.

Commissioner Maria De Jesus Garza asked about revenues generated from traffic tickets. Zamora responded, “We shouldn’t being looking at traffic, giving people tickets to get the (unintelligible) budget here.” He compared doing that to the City of Los Fresnos. The City collects $160,000 in ticket revenues per year, Hockema said.

Hockema tried to steer the conversation back towards enacting a policy of conservative revenue and expenditure estimates. “The idea here is let’s shoot under. Instead of overestimating our revenues, let’s be very conservative with our revenues. Instead of overestimating our expenditures, let’s be conservative,” Hockema said.

With that said, Hockema began discussing possible long term solutions. According to Hockema, reducing City staff via attrition could potentially amount to a gross savings of $300,000 over three years, but a net savings of $240,000. Taking natural increases in revenues over the same period could account to a gain of $150,000.

Hockema repeatedly stressed trying to make changes that would have as little impact on City employees as possible. “We didn’t want to conduct any layoffs. Some departments may have more employees than they need,” he said, saying that reductions could be made through attrition. “We’re visiting with the department heads about how they can reconfigure their departments to work with those number of staff members,” he said.

Furthermore, Hockema raised concerns about the City’s lowest paid staff members. Low wages, he said, can make it difficult for the City to remain competitive as an employer. “We have a lot of employees in the city of Port Isabel that are being paid very low wages, in fact we have a lot of employees that are getting paid right now minimum wage in this city,” he said. The net savings figure he had mentioned previously came from taking into account providing wage increases for those lowest-paid employees.

Though the commission still had questions about the solution proposals, Hockema expressed confidence in being able to right the City’s finances. “By this point next year, we should have $150,000 in savings, minimum,” he said. ” In any problem with money, the solution is time. If you can defer if you can stretch out obligations, then you can absorb them,” he said.

During the Department Reports section of the agenda, the commission discussed ongoing traffic problems, particularly on weekends. “I’ve come to the point, that it’s aggravating,” Zamora said.

He elaborated, saying, “I don’t blame the Island, I don’t blame the City of Port Isabel. I blame TxDOT. I don’t think they’ve taken a strong enough initiative to build a new bridge.” Zamora worried the stagnant traffic flow could be negatively impacting Port Isabel businesses.

The commissioners wondered if implementing an “always green” policy in traffic lights near Walmart — similar to the Garcia Street intersection — could help alleviate the problem. “The problem over there is none of those lights turn into an intersection, they turn into a parking lot,” Hockema said. “You’re going to have some traffic that stacks up regardless,” he said.

At the urging of the commission, Hockema said he would continue to investigate the issue.

During public comments, several residents stood to share with the commission their objections and concerns regarding the proposed Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) facilities which plan to build export facilities along the Brownsville Ship Channel.

Resident Vicki Scharen said, “I just don’t want to see this happen.” She continued, saying, “I don’t want to have any liquid natural gas plants here. If you truly represent the residents of Port Isabel, like me, you’re going to vigorously oppose… these plants.”

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