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Mercedes forum heats up as candidates spar over spending

April 19, 2017

MERCEDES — Political hopefuls at a candidate forum on Monday didn’t pull any punches in their criticisms of current city leadership.

Concerns levied by candidates vying for seats on the Mercedes City Commission included street repairs, police pay, spending and allegations of money mismanagement.

Among such issues was the recent discovery of the City of Mercedes paying more than $35,000 in utility bills for nonprofit organizations — the Texas Valley Communities Foundation included — and transactions resulting in property valued at around $1 million being sold for as little as $10.

In the former’s case, the matter reached a tipping point when City Manager Richard Garcia was placed on unpaid suspension last month pending an investigation into the billing discrepancies, which he’s attributed to human error in the finance department.

Expressing the majority of these concerns were Leonel Benavidez and Velda Jean Garcia, candidates for Place 1 commissioner, as well as Place 3 hopeful Julian Valdez.

“… Get up close and personal with the departments,” Valdez, who owns his own plumbing company, said after identifying street conditions, Development Corporation of Mercedes spending and police raises as issues that demand attention. “Due to the suspension of our city manager due to a misuse of our funds, I think it’s critical that a temporary micromanaging is necessary. I would evaluate the heads of our departments and need to be a bit more firm and effective. The planning department is in a very, very sad situation. ... How about getting departments helping out-of-town investors and not just catering to local establishments?”

Benavidez said it was he who assisted in finding many city discrepancies.

“I found out that the city has been overcommitting a lot of tax dollars into these business developments,” said Benavidez, whose work experience includes health insurance and consumer power sales and consulting as well as architectural drafting and design. “Examples: On Vermont and Expressway we purchased that property for $925,536 and we sold it for $10 to a gentleman that will soon become an EDC board member. Again, the focus is not so much on what he’s doing with it now, but what we did as city leaders and the way that they handled that sale.”

The sale Benavidez was referring to was between the Development Corporation of Mercedes and the aforementioned foundation, a nonprofit organization. Similar transactions are not uncommon as some entities, such as municipalities, often lease property for $1 a year to nonprofits.

According to a 2007 Houston Chronicle article, Houston reviewed such agreements to determine whether they were warranted.

Still, candidates such as Garcia remain skeptical of Mercedes officials’ dealings.

“I think we need to manage our money a little better,” Garcia, who said she drives 18-wheelers for a living, said.

Ramon Mejia, a Place 1 challenger, also didn’t shy from airing grievances about what he perceived to be a lack of park maintenance and basic public service needs.

“We need to clean our city,” Mejia, a local business owner, said of his mission as a commissioner. “Armando said they are doing a good job. Go to my Facebook … and you will see what the city really looks like.”

Mejia was referring to Place 3 incumbent Armando Lopez speaking highly of the city’s efforts in recent years to improve Mercedes’ quality of life.

Both Lopez and Mayor Henry Hinojosa practiced restraint when faced with city leadership criticisms, choosing instead to highlight their records as incumbents over the years. Hinojosa and Lopez, for instance, cited Mercedes’ Standard & Poor’s rating climbing from DDD+ to A+ currently.

Lopez reiterated the credit rating’s importance in lowering interest rates when borrowing money to complete projects such as street improvements, and although sales tax revenue is on the decline in the city, the mayor said Mercedes remains the sixth largest generator in the Rio Grande Valley.

Other achievements the incumbents noted include the construction of the Safe Room and Community Recreation Center dome on North Vermont Avenue, and the walking trail and exercise stations being installed there and near the Mercedes Civic Center on the east side of town, which is where more than 50 people attended the forum on Monday.

“We’re very proud of some of the developments,” Lopez said, adding that a new fire station was funded in town thanks to grant money. “If you have amenities they will come.”

On one of the rare occasions of the evening, both Hinojosa and Jose Gomez, the Place 1 city commissioner who’s vacating his post to challenge for the mayor’s seat, agreed on a hypothetical about citizen opposition over a project that otherwise meets all necessary regulations.

“Naturally we would listen to our citizens, and after fully explaining the project and regulations if they were still opposed to it, then we would be opposed to it as well,” Hinojosa said.

Gomez said he would reduce property taxes by 5 cents if elected mayor and encouraged closer dealings with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality with regard to the city’s water system. It was fiscal conservatism though that the mayoral hopeful focused on during his comments.

“We’ve been giving money to nonprofit organizations and for-profit organizations like we have a money tree, and by showing that we are responsible leaders and looking at every organization that goes out before us and requests funding, we should make it a priority to look at our citizens first and be concerned about them,” Gomez said before closing his remarks to applause. “Grants are matching and they get us more into debt … we have to be more responsible.”

The forum was moderated by Barry Jones of Mercedes and sponsored by the Mercedes Area Chamber of Commerce. Candidates were timed on their response to questions, which were pre-submitted. Each candidate answered three questions and had an opportunity to deliver opening and closing remarks.

Those who did not attend were Place 1 candidates Justin Cadena and Leo Villarreal, who was said to have a family medical emergency, and Place 3 challenger Cris De Leon Hernandez.

mrodriguez@mvtcnews.com

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated from the print version to include remarks from Place 3 challenger Julian Valdez, and to correct mayoral candidate Jose Gomez’s comments.