The City of McAllen will be playing defense in the upcoming 86th legislative session. That’s the summary McAllen Mayor Jim Darling offered to the McAllen Chamber’s Government Affairs Council.
Darling opened the session by bringing the group up to date on the city’s progress on streets, drainage, parks and other initiatives developed over the last couple of years. Speaking to a group of approximately 50 community representatives, Darling pointed to border security as an ongoing issue.
“The federal government has a great impact on the city. I’ve heard that different elements of the Border Patrol are having to fight for their funding, and it shouldn’t be that way. The Border Patrol doesn’t even have the funding for the helicopter pilots,” the Mayor said.
Darling mentioned that he recently met with Texas’ U. S. Senator John Cornyn about NAFTA, border security and DACA.
“We’re not in favor of a border wall. We’re all in favor of border security. There’s no question that we are. It’s just that some places it could the wall, some places helicopters, whatever. If you listen to the Border Patrol administration, that’s their consensus, too,” Darling said.
He related a conversation with the governor of Tamaulipas, Mexico. Darling said the governor showed him photos of people at a sporting goods store in McAllen loading boxes of ammunition that was headed south. “There’s a two-way flow, drugs coming here and guns going south to Mexico. That’s a big concern for everyone,” Darling said.
The mayor said there had been discussions of doing more to control the flow of arms and ammunition into Mexico with inspections of vehicles heading south.
“Twenty years ago, they did a southbound inspection. The line going south was four-hours long!” Darling explained. “If they’re going to do southbound inspections, they really need to put in the infrastructure to make sure that it doesn’t cripple commerce. Right now, they’re collecting a lot of money, cash, from narcotics seizures. It goes to the general treasury. It should go to local border infrastructure.”
The McAllen leader expressed “frustration” with not being able to get information on the NAFTA negotiations. “The administration wants to use tariffs to pay for a border wall, but it’s the businesses that pay the tariffs, not the government. It’s difficult to get any information out of the NAFTA negotiators. It’s difficult to get specifics before they decide on them.”
Darling gave credit to Gov. Greg Abbott for his work in Washington, D. C. to push for continuing NAFTA. “The governor understands how important this is to Texas. If you look at a map, the farther north you go, the support for the wall goes higher. It’s ironic since we’re the ones who are impacted by border security.”
Looking forward to the 2018 Texas legislative session, Darling saw Gov. Abbott’s tentative agenda as something that will seriously impact McAllen. “The governor and the lieutenant governor told us their platform for the new session is not going to be the bathroom bill. It’s going to be reducing taxes, specifically property taxes.”
Announced last week, a key element of Abbott’s priorities is to prevent cities, counties and school districts from collecting more than 2.5 percent more in property tax revenue than they did in the previous year without voter approval. This does not refer to increases in the tax rate. It refers to the percent of the total funds raised. That’s a far lower cap than controversial thresholds that twice failed to make it through the legislature last year. Additionally, Abbott’s plan would require that two-thirds of voters, not a simple majority, approve any increase above that 2.5 percent threshold.
In McAllen’s case, the limit poses a significant problem because of the large drop in the city’s sales tax collection. Darling blamed the drop on a slow down in Mexican shoppers due to cartel violence and changes in the value of the peso. The city lost more than $1 million dollars last year in sales tax revenues. If the city is limited to a 2.5% tax revenue increase, it would not be able to make up the difference in lost revenues.
“Sales tax is a loss we don’t control. We don’t control the violence in Mexico. We don’t control the peso. We don’t control the discussion in Washington,” Darling explained. “If they had passed some of the things the governor proposed last year, we’d be scrambling to make up that money.”
The other problem Darling has encountered is the limits the legislature imposed on cities last year. “As you know, in the last session, the governor pushed a bill through that pretty much stops any new annexation in the city. Part of the rationale was that annexation was an over reach by cities. But, when you take a look at counties, you see that they don’t have building permit authority. They don’t have nuisance abatement authority. They don’t have zoning powers. If you live outside the city, you’re going to be at the mercy of your neighbor and what they build.”
“We think the idea of annexation authority is important. Texas cities lead the country in growth and a lot has to do with annexation,” Darling said. He cautioned that the growth could be stifled if cities cannot annex additional areas.
Another problem is a drop in franchise fees from public utility companies. Specifically, the wireless companies managed to lobby the state to pass a law to lower what they pay for access to city’s right of way along cities and alleys at a much lower rate than other public utilities pay. According to Darling, the city lost out on about $800,000 per year on revenue from wireless companies.
The city joined a group of cities in suing the state over the law. “We said, ‘you want to be treated like a public utility, but you don’t want to be regulated and pay the price,’” Darling explained.
Darling related that he has high expectations for the city’s partnership with the UTRGV Medical School. “I was in Austin and I got to sit right next to the governor, and he asked ‘When are you going to honor your commitment to UTRGV for your $2 million.’ I pointed out that $2 million is 5% of our ad valorem taxes. And if you don’t think that’s a big number, then why do you think 2.5% is a big number (referencing the proposed 2.5% ad valorem tax revenue increase limit). He did not appreciate that, but it puts it all in perspective.”
“It’s been more and more we’re up there in a defense posture. We’re a home rule city. From the standpoint of getting the state to authorize us to do anything, we don’t need their permission. But they keep telling us we can’t do things.”
Referencing problematic annexations in Austin and Houston in the past, Darling felt that all Texas cities were being affected negatively. “It seems one or two of the large cities makes them mad, and the other 1200 cities have to suffer for that. So we’re really in a defensive position.”