Amid rate controversy, city turns off water to La Villa school district - Brownsville Herald: News

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Amid rate controversy, city turns off water to La Villa school district

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Posted: Sunday, December 29, 2013 8:00 am

LA VILLA — When the La Villa school district’s winter break ends on Jan. 13, classrooms and administration buildings may not have running water.

Put another way, if the city and school district don’t resolve their dispute over water and sewer rates, the 625 students will not be able to attend classes — and will have to make up the missed school days later.

The long-running quarrel — in which the city says it’s attempting to collect on past due bills, and the district characterizes as a unilateral money grab that would devastate its ability to educate — intensified last week when the city shut off services to the district on Dec. 20.

“Well, our side is: There’s a balance due, and they’re going to have to pay for the services,” City Manager Wilfredo Mata said in a Thursday telephone interview.

In December 2012, the city passed an ordinance requiring the school district to pay a $14 per student and staff member surcharge for its water usage — in addition to regular consumption rates — mere months after the two sides agreed on a $6 surcharge, wrote La Villa school Superintendent Narciso Garcia in a scathing Tuesday new release.

The district refused to pay the extra $8 of the surcharge, instead continuing to pay its regular consumption rate plus $6 per head.

“Just like they decided to raise the rates, we decided not to pay them,” Garcia said Friday.

In his statement, Garcia wrote the $14 charge would make the effective rate six to seven times higher than any other Texas public school district. He called the charge “unfair” and accused city leaders of attempting to fix years of budgetary mismanagement by reaching into the pockets of the school district — which he said receives 80 percent of its funding from the state.

The state funding, incidentally, is allotted specifically for educational purposes. It should not be used to bail out a broke city, Garcia said.

“That’s fine and dandy, but we’re going to look after our kids,” he said.

“If the $14 surcharge were to be paid by the district, the district would deplete its reserves within a year and would be required to curtail instructional services by either reducing staff, available programs or both,” according to the news release. “It is unfair that the city is attempting to correct years of mismanagement by placing the burden on the backs of the students of the La Villa Independent School District.”

Mata doesn’t dispute the city — and its water system — are in dire straits.

Neither does the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state agency that oversees water quality.

In the commission’s latest five-year compliance period report, which ran from September 2008 to August 2013, the city racked up 57 written citations, in addition to citations the commission did not explicitly notify the city about.

The offenses ranged from “failure to maintain the system’s facilities and equipment in a manner so as to prevent the contamination of the water” to failure to turn in reports on time to containing an unacceptably high level of haloacetic acids and the chemical compound trihalomethanes.

“The City of La Villa has been ordered by TCEQ to bring their sewer and water plant up to state standards,” Mata said. “In order to comply with those state standards, we have had to make a rate increase.”

Despite the citations, TCEQ rated the city’s system “satisfactory.”

But La Villa schools disconnected their drinking fountains more than two years ago because the water was so bad, Garcia said. Instead, the district spends about $2,800 annually on bottled drinking water.

La Villa students won’t really get an extended vacation if their school district and city can’t reach an agreement — they’ll just have to make up days later.

Reached Saturday evening, Garcia said the sides hoped to meet sometime in the next week and was optimistic a deal could be reached.

But the superintendent will not be the one negotiating with the city for much longer.

The school board placed a public notice in The Monitor this week advertising the position with a $90,000 to $110,000 annual salary.

Garcia confirmed he accepted a deputy superintendent position in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district and plans to start in late January.

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