(We were cleaning out our files when we ran into this essay by former PUB supervisor and Port of Brownsville commissioner Mario Villarreal. Given the fact that the utility transfers more than $7 million into the city budget and is still subject to the continued meddling by politicians like Mayor Tony Martinez, the city commissioners, and former city officials into its finances and operations, we thought it would be instructive to reprint his letter. Martinez not only favors privatizing the utility, but also has encumbered the ratepayers with $100s of millions to build a gas-powered electric generating plant; the commissioners have approved rate increases into the foreseeable future to pay for it, and former mayor Eddie Treviño – named in the Limas corruption scandal as a conduit for a payback – was named as its general counsel by his former appointees to the PUB board. The Brownsville Herald refused to publish this article when Villarreal submitted it to them way back in July 2008. )
By Mario Villarreal
I have debated whether to write this missive concerning the Brownsville Public Utilities Board for many months, but in the end, I feel it's time to put the cards on the table and let the chips fall where they may.
Believe it or not, when the PUB was created in 1960, many of us felt that by separating the board from the city, politics would be eliminated from hindering its operations.
Boy, were we mistaken!
Those of us who worked on the very first PUB administration after the board's first meeting on July 15, 1961, inherited a system lacking in some basic requirements of a municipal utilities system. The electorate had just approved the creation of the board by a mere 38 votes (2,741 to 2,703) that would be responsible to the city commission and to the voters of the city.
The membership of that first board reads like a Who's Who of Brownsville history. Former Mayor Ruben Edlestein, Kenneth Faxon, Barry Putegnat, and Gus Peña were the voting members. Mayor Dr. J.C. George represented the city commission on the board and was a nonvoting member barring a tie. George Weir, the manager of the existing electrical plant, was named PUB's first general manager and given the daunting task of bringing PUB up to par to meet the challenges of the mid-20th Century.
First, the board had to deal with $250,000 in uncollected utility bills. AT the time the collection rate was hovering near 65 percent, a drag on the entire system. Additionally, rigged meters and tapped electrical lines were in use, resulting in electric losses that reached about 30 percent.
I was assistant to Weir and set about to make the necessary improvements to make the utility competitive with the privately-owned utilities like Central Power and Light. For many years, CPL and others had tried to buy the utility from the City of Brownsville – but the voters of the city had rejected all offers that would take the ownership away from the municipality. Hard-nosed business decisions and changes in policies to help PUB survive in the dog-eat-dog world of the utility market generated controversy and resistance from many quarters. Yet, in a very short time, the utility could report to the city that its finances were on solid ground and that transfers to the city – which continue to this day – could be made to the city's general fund.
At that time we operated out of a rented space atop the old Majestic Theater on Elizabeth Street. The staff consisted of myself, a Mrs. Medrano as executive secretary, Weir, and perhaps one or two engineers. We didn't have the luxury of having the palace that PUB now occupies. Still, in a short period of time we had consolidated the water ans sewer operations and integrated them with the electric generating facilities. From there we moved to rented space at the airport, until subsequent boards made the move to PUB's present location.
The experiences we had with drainage and electrical problems with hurricanes made me think that we're not doing enough to facilitate the drainage of storm runoff and to make our electrical system more efficient. Now in the hurricane season and with others forming in the Caribbean and Atlantic, it is of utmost importance that simple maintenance of our drains and canals be performed continually.
After each "flooding event" or hurricane, the sight of garbage-plugged drains and vegetation-choked ditches is evident. Surely we can run the vacuum trucks at least once a month through our drain system. And keeping canals free of excess vegetation is a good investment that will allay the chronic flooding our residents suffer each time we get a downpour, much less a hurricane.
And we need to get people who have professional experience in different engineering areas to serve the PUB. We need at least one civil engineer, an electrical engineer, a mechanical engineer, and a representative of the private sector. Don't get me wrong. The people on the board now are nice enough. But can someone who specializes in adult education, banking management, or educational consultancy be equipped to handle the tough questions and press for the complex solutions required by the exigencies of a municipal utility?
For example, I remember a former mayor saying that if we lost a transmission line during a hurricane the city would be left without any power. How can that be? What is the use of the Silas Ray plant for, then? We're paying for its maintenance and its operation. Couldn't that have been used in a pinch?
PUB manager John Bruciak needs at least three assistants and the utility must have the services of an independent auditor that is not associated with any political faction or financial consultants. The business of debt generation has incurred a great load of debt on the current and future residents of this city. Debt for debt's (and commissioners') sake is not good public policy.
The city commissioners should make sure that at least one of their members attend PUB meetings, as should representatives from the Port of Brownsville. The decisions made at the PUB will ultimately affect all these entities, and their presence there should be a no-brainer.
While we're at it, at a meeting of the city, fire, and police departments on a recent emergency response exercise, there was no one from the PUB represented. Surely a player that moves large volumes of water and storm runoff through its canals and resacas should have been included in the response. With expertise and talent like that available and no one to tap it for the city's benefit, it makes no sense not to be inclusive.
The continued moves by some city commissioners and administrators to push for annexations is nothing more than an effort to cast the net of city taxes as far and wide as they can. But the annexation also requires provisions of services, and we know that the city is already spread thin to provide police and fire protection to the outlying areas. When you take into consideration that all other services must be provided (parks, libraries, etc.), it is obvious that the push to grab new taxes for the city will cost more than the new areas will yield.
If they're so committed to annex more land, why not annex Cameron Park? Lord knows the area needs it. It is a charade to have the city virtually encircle this pocket of poverty and still refuse to go in there and uplift the lives of these, our fellow residents.
PUB, likewise, should not compete with the private sector as it seeks to spread its utilities service area. Ideally, there should be a complementing of interests between both. Yes, we do need an impact fee that is equitable between ratepayers and developers, but only a balancing of these interests will benefit all of us.
Those of us who were here at the origins held the firm belief that politics should not play any significant role in the operations of the PUB. Obviously, this is not what has happened to our municipal utility to the detriment of all Brownsville residents.