By Jerry Kurtyka

Authored by Sen. Blanco and sponsored in the House by Rep. Moody, Proposition 11 look harmless, but is it? On November 2, we will be voting on this and other propositions, but Proposition 11 should be understood by voters.

Proposition 11 (S.J.R. 32, 88th Leg., R.S.) is a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot authorizing the legislature to permit conservation and reclamation districts in El Paso County by issuing bonds supported by ad valorem taxes to fund the development and maintenance of parks and recreational facilities. Senator Cesar Blanco proposed the proposition.

There is a lot more language you can look up but, essentially, Proposition 11 allows civic bodies in El Paso County to create conservation and reclamation districts, water improvement districts, and issue bonds to develop these districts. Proposition 11 adds El Paso County to the list of other counties in which the legislature can authorize conservation and reclamation districts to develop and finance parks and other recreational facilities with taxes. These include special districts such as water control and improvement districts (my italics), municipal management districts, and special utility districts. The other counties are Bexar, Bastrop, Waller, Travis, Williamson, Harris, Galveston, Brazoria, Fort Bend, Montgomery and Tarrant.

What could go wrong? As a long-time Sierran, I obviously do not have a problem with conservation. So, I wrote to Sen. Blanco’s office via the website email and never heard back. Then I called his Austin office on Sept 6th and connected with a staffer. I asked her several questions about #11 – 1) Why wasn’t El Paso County included in the earlier legislation, i.e., why now? 2) If bonds are issued for a conservation/reclamation/water district, can the civic body bypass the voters to issue the bonds? 3) If one of these districts is declared inside a TIRZ, does that preclude the civic body from rescinding the TIRZ (as a poison pill)? 4) Can the Legislature create one of these districts without local approval? Like in TIRZ 13 – Paul Foster’s 2,200 acre “barony” in Northeast.

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The staffer did not have answers to my questions and said she would get back to me. No word from her so far. A colleague has contacted Rep. Moody’s office with the same results – no answer. Forgive my cynicism but when something looks too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.

It is the timing and the term, “water control and improvement district” that aroused my suspicion.

A conspiracy theorist connects the dots of news items in a way that puts a different spin on the story than the usual media crap. This is a dot you might want to think about. On May 23, the El Paso Inc., newspaper reported that, “El Paso Water fights drought with ‘enhanced arroyo’.” Oh yes, the El Paso Water Utility (EPU) is going to pump treated wastewater into a two-mile long arroyo where much of it will evaporate in the heat and some residual will seep down to recharge the Hueco Bolson aquifer. So, why not skip the middleman and just pump it directly into the aquifer? It is expensive to treat wastewater. Are there other reasons?

My monthly visit to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID) board meeting has taught me a few things about how water acts and I can tell you that natural return of surface water to groundwater is important but is not huge. At a recent EBID meeting, I asked the question how much irrigation seeps back into the aquifer as recharge and I was told about 25%. Evaporation is counted as 8% to 15%, depending on the temperature and surface area (which the arroyo design will minimize).

This planned water infiltration facility will also include landscaping and trails for public use. Like a park and on Paul Foster’s 2,200-acre development that also goes by the name, TIRZ 13. Rep. Kennedy’s office confirmed this for me. In my opinion, this project is intended to enhance Foster’s development as a park-like amenity under the guise of aquifer recharge. But there might be a more strategic reason.

A Tax Incremental Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) is a method local governments can use to pay for improvements that will draw private investment to an area, typically a blighted area in need of upgrading. Except in El Paso because raw land is raw land; upgrading is just normal development on raw land. The taxing unit may dedicate all, a portion of, or none of the tax revenue that is attributable to increased property values brought about by improvements within the reinvestment zone, i.e., the incremental tax revenue stays in the TIRZ district and does not enhance tax revenue to the larger taxing entity. Like the City, like us. The TIRZ keeps the incremental taxes or a portion of it inside the TIRZ.

Downtown El Paso is TIRZ 5 but using a TIRZ for raw land, like TIRZ 13 isn’t a typical use for the TIRZ vehicle. The City granted Paul Foster the 2,200 acres in exchange for his small acreage on I-10, originally designated for the aborted Great Wolf Resort deal. The City Attorney is on record telling us that, if the Great Wolf deal did not go through, then the 2,200-acre swap was off. It did not and the swap happened anyway, sweetened by the granting of TIRZ status for Foster’s barony. Think of it as former City Manager Tommy Gonzalez and Mayor Dee Margo’s, “gift that keeps on giving.” But not to you.

The new faces on City Council have launched an evaluation of the 12 El Paso TIRZ districts to understand if these are working for the City or mostly benefit private parties. They can be rescinded, or not. The TIRZ 10 created for the Great Wolf project was recently rescinded. Could other TIRZ districts be rescinded if found to not benefit the City overall and, perhaps, be a drain on City services not paid for by TIRZ-sheltered tax revenue?

If there is a bond-financed conservation/reclamation district on a TIRZ, then it likely cannot be rescinded until the bonds are paid for.

Could that be the reason for EPU’s “enhanced arroyo” in TIRZ 13? To create a rescission-proof “poison pill” in some way that precludes the City from revoking its TIRZ status in some way? I’m not sure, but then there are those dots…

If this confuses you, join the club and get informed. On Saturday October 14th, the Community First Coalition will host a panel discussion on El Paso’s use of the TIRZ called, TIRZ – AN ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT TOOL? Who wins? Who loses? It will be held at the Chamizal Community Center, 2119 Cypress Avenue, from 11:00 am -1 pm.

And, as for the role of Proposition 11 in all of this, well judge for yourself how it fits into the larger scheme of connected dots.

See you there.

About the Author:

Jerry Kurtyka, a retired banking and IT manager, is an environmental activist whose focus is on sustainable communities and water equity. He has studied and taught in various sustainability frameworks such as Design for Sustainability, Natural Capitalism, Cradle-to-Cradle, Permaculture and Project Drawdown. He was the first Executive Director of the El Paso Housing Finance Corporation and finished his career in 2013 as the Project Manager for the El Paso Public Library’s Virtual Village Program. He is currently a community volunteer on the SWIM climate modeling project at UTEP, a long time Sierra Club member and on the Steering Committee for the Community First Coalition. Kurtyka submitted this editorial in his personal capacity and not as part of any organization with which he is associated.

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