McAllen park’s fate, courthouse delays among 2023’s top storiesdfwnewsa | December 29, 2023 | 0 | East Texas News , South Texas News
From political shakeups to rising taxes, to controversies over courthouse construction and stray pet placements, 2023 saw a lot of buzzworthy headlines across Hidalgo County.
One story that garnered perhaps the greatest amount of public input was the doomed fate of McAllen’s Greenjay Park.
The 90-acre greenspace located on Ware Road south of the expressway has, for many years, been seen as a destination for professional and hobbyist disc golfers alike who know it by another name, the McAllen Disc Golf Park.
Its verdant landscape, complete with scrubby native shade trees and a natural resaca also make it an attractive spot for birders, who enjoy looking for the dozens of species of birds that either call it home, or find respite there during their annual migrations.
In late July, however, McAllen officials chose to rezone the park from agricultural open space to light industrial, effectively paving the way for an Austin-based tech company, Zoho Corporation to move in and create a “tech campus” on the site.
Over the course of several long meetings, hundreds of residents voiced their opposition to the rezoning, while members of McAllen’s business community lobbied for it.
The McAllen City Council voted in favor of economic progress over leaving untouched a piece of land that city staffers claimed was never a park to begin with.
Meanwhile, over in Edinburg, another big controversy was brewing in July. This one involved the Palm Valley Animal Society and the Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court.
As The Monitor was the first to report on July 15, the county had spent several long months considering severing ties with the animal shelter, which provides animal control services in the county’s rural areas for more than $1 million per year.
County officials had begun to feel that those costs were getting too high. As a result, they hired a firm, B2Z Engineering, of Mission, to begin exploring options for building a county-owned animal control center.
The county had B2Z explore at least three locations in the rural eastern stretches of the county.
After seeing the newspaper’s report, representatives from the animal shelter said they felt “blindsided” by the county’s plans to sever their contract.
But by the time budget season came around in September, the commissioners’ court approved a new $1.2 million contract with Palm Valley Animal Shelter for 2024.
They also gave B2Z the greenlight to continue exploring other site options for the potential county-owned animal shelter, so this issue is not over yet.
NEW COURTHOUSE BLUES
Controversy over construction on the new county courthouse also made headlines in 2023.
It doesn’t take an expert to see that work on the seven-story building has been at a standstill for months.
On April 6, The Monitor was the first to report that the unfinished structure was plagued by a leaky roof, improper window seals, HVAC problems and myriad other issues that had caused a rift between Hidalgo County and Morganti Inc., the Houston-based company tasked with its construction.
Rumors swirled that the dispute would devolve into complex litigation, and in its own correspondence with the newspaper in response to multiple public information requests, the county admitted that that was one of its chief concerns, as well.
The courthouse’s opening is now at least two years behind schedule, while the costs to build it have skyrocketed from an initial projection of about $130 million, to somewhere around $200 million.
Meanwhile, the county has sought to withhold records from the newspaper regarding the issue, including correspondence with Morganti, engineering reports from a third-party inspection of the construction defects, and more.
The county sought an opinion from the Texas attorney general, citing legal confidentiality and security concerns as part of its rationale for withholding the records.
However, the AG found partially in The Monitor’s favor and ordered the county to release certain records. In response, the county is now asking the newspaper for more than $4,200 to release them.
And despite assurances from county Judge Richard F. Cortez that the courthouse will open soon into the new year, the weeds around the building remain high and untrimmed.
Speaking of money, 2023 saw property appraisals hit astronomical levels all across the region, from Rio Grande City to Brownsville. And things were no different in Hidalgo County.
While many local municipalities took some measures to lessen the blow to taxpayers by offering small decreases to their tax rates, such as Edinburg, which approved a one-penny drop in the tax rate, the county commissioners’ court went in the opposite direction.
The county chose to keep the 2024 tax rate unchanged at 57.5 cents per $100 valuation, but given that appraisals have climbed so steeply, that decision effectively created a nearly 12% tax hike.
That tax increase will generate just under $35 million in additional revenues for the county in the coming year.
At the same time, the county also approved the issuance of some $44.3 million in new debt via certificates of obligation.
Meanwhile, the 2023 election season brought with it change in many cities where residents chose to oust longtime incumbents.
Perhaps most notable was in Donna, where longtime Mayor Rick Morales and his running mate, Richie Moreno, were defeated in their reelection bids.
Morales lost the mayorship to his one-time running mate, David Moreno, in a runoff of Dec. 9. The two Morenos are unrelated.
David Moreno’s new running mates, Ernesto Lugo and Jesse “Coach” Jackson, cruised to victory in runoffs, as well, and were sworn in together just days later.
With their newly formed majority, the trio’s first official action was to appoint a new city attorney in Robert Salinas.
Four days later, the trio led the undoing of a years-long process to fund the commercial expansion of the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge.
Under Mayor Morales, Donna had, at the end of October, greenlit the issuance of more than $61 million in debt to fund the construction of two northbound lanes for commercial traffic at the bridge. The funding is slated to largely come from revenue bonds.
The city was days away from putting the bonds on the market when the newly restructured city council, under Mayor Moreno, unanimously voted to halt the debt issuance.
It’s unclear how long that process will remain at a standstill, but the Donna City Council is already making plans for additional shakeups.
The agenda for a Jan. 2, 2024 meeting states that the council plans to restructure the boards of directors at both economic development corporations, and at the bridge corporation.
Over in Weslaco, longtime Mayor David Suarez lost to former Weslaco City Commissioner Adrian Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, who also previously served a stint as a Weslaco ISD trustee, had garnered the endorsement of Weslaco’s firefighters’ union.
And in Alamo, things saw a huge shakeup there where Diana Martinez and her running mates lost to their challengers.
Martinez lost to J.R. Garza, who vacated his seat at Place 3 in order to challenge her.
Over in the All-America City, social justice activists succeeded in getting the city of Edinburg one step closer to implementing a $15 minimum wage.
In April, a McAllen federal judge ruled in favor of La Union Del Pueblo Entero, or LUPE, and the grassroots organization, Ground Game Texas, and their circulation of a petition to put the matter before the Edinburg City Council.
But after months of inaction, community activists pressed the city to make good on the court ruling.
The council put the matter to a vote and unanimously approved a plan that will implement the $15 minimum wage for all city of Edinburg employees by 2026.
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