County takes steps in turning water conservation district into taxing entity

PRESIDIO COUNTY –– While the commissioners were set to approve the new fiscal year’s budget and tax rate at Tuesday’s meeting, there was a typo on the publicly-posted agenda preventing the court from passing any of these items. Despite that, the commissioners did discuss how to ensure that the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District is able to secure funding as its current source of revenue runs afoul of the law. 

As The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, County Attorney Rod Ponton believes it is illegal for the county to continue to fund PCUWCD’s entire budget, as it has done since the district’s formation in 1999. 

To bolster his argument, Ponton cited two attorney general opinions which concluded that county tax dollars cannot support a separate political entity, such as the PCUWCD. “There is a part of the Texas Constitution that says that counties can only spend money on county business. They can’t give money away to other political entities,” Ponton said. “And the attorney general said it’s illegal for a county to continually fund the operation and maintenance of another political subdivision.” 

Ponton did say there is a way out of this bind: The county could fund the PCUWCD while the water district is in the process of transitioning into a fully-independent taxing entity, much like the Big Bend Regional Hospital District. Ponton said, “If the water district is in the process of setting themselves up to become a taxing entity, and they have a process in place to get a tax vote before the voters, then it would be all right for the county to fund that water district to the extent of that water district getting itself ready to become a self-funded water district.”

Since its formation, the PCUWCD has had the authority, through the Texas Legislature, to become a taxing entity, yet the water district has never held a county-wide election to empower itself to collect a tax.  

 Trey Gerfers, the chairman of the PCUWCD, wrote a letter to County Judge Cinderela Guevara stating that the water district intends to hold an election in which the PCUWCD will ask county voters for the authority to collect a tax. That election, however, cannot happen until November of next year. “If the voters confirm our taxing authority, it will still be another year before the district actually receives funding through the collection of taxes. In the meantime, I very respectfully request that the commissioners court kindly continue funding the district,” Gerfers wrote in his letter. 

Yet in order for the county to keep funding the PCUWCD for the time being, Ponton said that there needs to be an interlocal agreement drafted that would allow for the county to fund the water district while it is in the process of transitioning. “The interlocal agreement basically says they’re going to take these formal steps to set up the process to put in a [taxing] district by doing A, B, C, D and E,” he said. “We need to have that in place before we can fund them or the county is going to be in hot water by not following these attorney general opinions.”

Commissioner Brenda Bentley asked what would happen to the water district if residents did not vote in favor of a water-district tax, to which Ponton replied, “They would have to just rely on fees,” through well permits and so forth. 

“It’s just a scary thought to think that they may have to go away and our water is at risk,” Bentley responded. 

Judge Guevara acknowledged that could be an issue and said that the public needs to be informed on the important role the water district plays in supporting the county. “Once they are educated that water is our most important resource –– and what goes into the testing, and who is checking our aquifers that they are not too low, and who is making sure we have water for many many more years to come –– I think the public will easily vote for the district,” she said. 

As The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, PCUWCD could be funded through a water-district tax without having county residents see an increase in their bills. Instead of raising taxes on county residents, there could be a ballot measure in the election to decrease the county’s taxing by a small amount and raise a new tax for the PCUWCD funding for that same amount. 

Ponton said he would work on drafting the interlocal agreement that would allow for the county to continue funding the water district. He said he should be able to present the agreement at the next county commissioners meeting on September 7.