Presidio residents say yes to bilingualism, no to rate increases at passionate city council meeting

PRESIDIO — Presidio residents packed into the Presidio Activity Center last week as city council discussed two contentious topics: a proposed rate increase for utilities like water, sewer and garbage, as well as the city’s possible handling of “transmigrante” merchants, who could possibly soon arrive at the Presidio Port of Entry.

At the end of the long night, when the present council members voted unanimously not to enact a 5 percent per year rate increase, residents in the audience cheered and thanked the council.

During a public comment period at the start of the meeting, some Presidio residents in attendance also spoke passionately in English and Spanish about a third issue: the fact that local politics like city council meetings and the bimonthly agendas are typically only in English.

“We have to realize their voice — their vote — counts,” Isela Nuñez, a bilingual former councilmember, said in English of Presidio residents who only spoke Spanish. “Sometimes they do not understand what’s going on and I think sometimes people might mislead.”

City leaders pledged to be transparent and open with speakers of both languages. “We’re more than happy to make sure everybody understands what we’re discussing tonight,” Mayor John Ferguson said near the start of the roughly three-hour long meeting.

Throughout the discussion, though, one resident repeatedly complained in Spanish that the conversation was not being adequately translated for Spanish speakers. More city leaders started speaking in both English and Spanish, and some residents acted as interpreters, helping clue in monolingual speakers to details they might have missed.

Around 6 p.m., the city was already short on chairs for residents at this exceptionally well-attended city council meeting. Near the bottom of the agenda was an item on the transmigrante issue. The city moved that item to the beginning, apparently figuring that that’s what everyone was there to talk about.

H. Cowan, a representative of Solitaire Homes, had asked to speak to city council on the issue. He’d previously spoken about transmigrantes at the last council meeting in December, where he said Solitaire “cannot and will not accept 300 to 400 transmigrantes traversing on [Farm to Market Road] 170 every day,” as Presidio International previously reported.

Transmigrantes are traveling Central Americans who buy consumer goods in the United States (cars, dishwashers, etc.) and resell them in their home countries. They aren’t allowed to sell any of their goods in Mexico, and the country funnels them along designated routes.

Currently, the only port of entry approved for transmigrante traffic is in Los Indios in South Texas, where the merchants dominate the local economy and are also celebrated with a yearly festival: Dia del Transmigrante, or “Day of the Transmigrante.”

But as violence spikes in northeastern Mexico, Mexican officials have floated the idea of opening another approved transmigrante port in Presidio/Ojinaga. Presidio city leaders say they’ve received no information on the plan, and the proposed date for the change keeps getting pushed back.

If transmigrantes do arrive in Presidio, the city is considering building a parking lot to accommodate them as they wait for the paperwork, which can take days as the travelers’ belongings are weighed at ports of entry to make sure they aren’t selling goods in Mexico. In November, the city also passed a parking ordinance, which it hopes will streamline transmigrantes’ passage through town.

The ordinance imposes rules on commercial vehicles and parking lots for them, including zone regulations and requirements that such lots be paved. But as Cowan argued in an email to Mayor Ferguson, that ordinance may leave out transmigrantes — the very group it’s designed to regulate. That’s because it includes a number of exemptions, including for vehicles “obtaining an export permit or customs permit.”

Cowan’s objections to the ordinance go beyond loopholes, though. At the council meeting Wednesday, the Solitaire representative argued the rules will squeeze out private businesspeople who want to set up parking lots for transmigrantes. (City leaders dispute this and say they just want to make sure transmigrantes are regulated.) Cowan also argued the city’s “extraordinary and possibly illegal methods” were designed to funnel transmigrantes to the city’s “money-making yard.”

“I think it’s unconstitutional,” he said of the ordinance, noting that Solitaire Homes has truck drivers who sleep in cars at its Presidio facility. “Get ready to arrest me.”

Cowan also stressed that the biggest factor slowing down the transmigrante traffic might be delays at the port of entry — a detail over which the city of Presidio has limited control. “I am a citizen of this town,” he said. “I demand you do not spend money on boondoggles.”

City-council tabled the agenda item on transmigrantes and voted to hold a special-session public meeting on transmigrantes, scheduled for 6 p.m. on January 23rd at the Presidio Activity Center.

Meanwhile, it became increasingly clear to city officials that many residents were not, in fact, there to speak about the transmigrante issue.

City Administrator Joe Portillo asked residents to raise their hands if they were here for transmigrantes or something else. Some of the crowd raised their hands for transmigrantes. Over half raised their hands for “something else.”

Specifically, residents wanted to discuss a proposed rate increase on city utilities. Several residents complained that the rate increase — of 5 percent on all city utilities — was stacked on top of other expenses, including a recent increase in appraised property values.

City leaders stressed that the rate increases were important to keep city services solvent. “If we do not raise our rates, we’ll be operating these services losing money,” said Mayor John Ferguson.

They also stressed the city needed money to pay for extenuating circumstances, including water lines that leak an estimated 20 percent of city water, and the estimated 300 emergency calls last year at the port-of-entry. “Those are tax dollars that are being collected by the City of Presidio but that are being used by not us,” Portillo, the city administrator, said. “Those are some of the things we are trying to fix here.”

“All those nice houses over there that don’t pay taxes to us,” Mayor Ferguson said, referencing the gated community for border agents that, as a federal entity, doesn’t pay local property taxes, as Presidio International previously reported. “Take your pick.”

“We have a $4.2 million budget,” Portillo said. “The City of Marfa, that has a third of the people, has a $9 million budget. It all comes down to money.”

Residents, though, pushed back — arguing that they hadn’t seen enough benefits from the taxes they were paying already. “Every day I drop my kids off at school, and the road conditions have been bad for the longest period of time,” said resident Areli Perez. “I’ve been here ten years, and I don’t see how we’re increasing our quality of life.”

“I’ve been here since I was in first, second grade,” said resident Jose “Pepe” Acosta. “Presidio’s the same.”

City leaders, in turn, pushed back on the idea that Presidio wasn’t improving. “I want to disagree with you,” Mayor Ferguson said. “I feel like Presidio’s come a long way.”

“I’m not saying I’m right and you’re wrong,” he added. “I’m just saying we’ve made lots of improvements. We still have a long way to go.”

Residents brought up other concerns as well. Alfred Muñiz, who serves on the Presidio County Appraisal District, said that while other regional cities had decreased their local tax rates in response to rising property and home values, Presidio had not.

“I heard you mention everything but inflation,” Brad Newton, executive director of the Presidio Municipal Development District, responded. Noting that Presidio hadn’t had a rate increase in years, he asked Muñiz how the city should better handle inflation.

But inflation or not, Muñiz insisted that the rate increases could “tax people to death.”

“These people, some of them are not even on a 40 hour week.” he said. He warned that if the city adopted rate increases, older people on fixed budgets might lose their homes. And “a lot of people will move back to Mexico, where it’s a lot cheaper.”

Resident Arian Velazquez-Ornelas, meanwhile, argued that the city was struggling to obtain grants, because “the audits we’ve had in the past have made us look really bad.”

“I think the general consensus is that the people feel that we have to pay for mismanagement,” she said.

At the end of the roughly three-hour long meeting, Councilmember Rogelio Zubia said he couldn’t support the rate increases. “As a person who represents the public, I make a motion that we don’t approve this increase,” he said. “Because that’s what the people who elected me want.”

“I know there are repercussions,” he added to a smattering of applause. “But at this moment, I don’t think it’s the best thing to do.”

As Councilmember Samuel Carrasco seconded the motion and Councilmember Irvin Olivas joined them, the vote was unanimous: There would be no rate increases in Presidio.

“We’re on the same team here,” Ferguson said as the meeting drew to a close. “Let’s always try to be honest with each other. We will continue making this town a better and better place.”