City Hall cuts ties with Gardendale water group
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COMMUNITY RAN DRY FOR FIVE DAYS
AGREEMENT OVER BILLING, MANAGEMENT ENDS WITHOUT RESOLUTION
A November prediction by the Cotulla city attorney that the Gardendale water system would soon fail came true on the weekend of January 7-8, when residents of the highwayside community were left dry.
Meeting on Thursday evening, Jan. 12, Cotulla councilors learned that despite an agreement for operation of the Gardendale water system having expired more than three months previously, City Hall agreed to foot the bill for $40,000 in emergency repairs to the single-pump system and returned water to the community’s lines by that morning.
At the same meeting last week, the council agreed to cut all ties with the Gardendale Water Supply Corporation but remain open to talks over the system’s future.
The weekend water system failure prompted a number of Gardendale residents to address the Cotulla City Council on Thursday, some of them describing the city’s action and an apparent failure in communications as childish.
“Gardendale now has water, but it was especially difficult for the residents,” Melissa Gonzalez told the council, going on to echo the words of Dist. 21 Texas Senator Judith Zaffirini, who attended the grand opening of the community’s new water supply system in the late 1990s: “Water is essential to life and health.”
Gonzalez, who is a member of the Gardendale Water Supply Corporation, said she believes one or more people at Cotulla City Hall rebuffed calls for help from the community during the water emergency or failed to respond to inquiries.
While praising the municipal system for its “good public service” for the benefit of all citizens, Gonzalez said she believes Cotulla failed to live up to its calling with regard to Gardendale.
“It was not the case last week,” Gonzalez told the council. “Ignoring calls because of bias is childish. This was foolishness in an emergency situation. Leadership failed to handle it to the best of their ability, advising the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that the city of Cotulla is no longer responsible for the [Gardendale] water supply.”
“This is not a city manager form of government,” Gonzalez added, berating Cotulla City Hall for what she claimed was a lapse in the chain of command in response to the emergency. “I would like to see the city council held accountable.
“We want to see it in full working order,” Gonzalez said of the community’s water supply. “The city of Cotulla has retained water revenues for three years.”
Temporary relief during the water system failure was provided by La Salle County Commissioner Raul Ayala, who dispatched a tanker truck to Gardendale and who distributed cases of drinking water among the residents.
The unincorporated community of Gardendale lies outside the Cotulla municipal boundaries and beyond its jurisdictional territory. For the past three years, according to City Hall and Atty. Steve Pena, the residents of Cotulla have been subsidizing the small community’s water supply system, which generates only an estimated $32,400 per year. That amount, according to both City Administrator Larry Dovalina and Utilities Supervisor David Wright, falls far short of the actual cost of operating the water supply system, whose electric bill alone is approximately $2,000 per month.
Wright estimated that the overall cost of operating the Gardendale water system may exceed $44,000 per year. He added that routine maintenance and repairs to the Gardendale water system have cost as much or more than customers have collectively been paying for the utility.
Cotulla Mayor Javier Garcia has indicated that while the city has no obligation towards its distant neighbor to the north, City Hall has acted out of a sense of neighborliness towards Gardendale, and that he believes the community’s water was restored at the earliest opportunity, adding that the repair was made entirely at Cotulla’s cost.
Dovalina said last week that the Gardendale WSC approached Cotulla City Hall as early as 2013, after it had reportedly experienced difficulty in contracting a licensed operator, and that Cotulla has for the past three years been the system’s de facto operator in order to meet state requirements enforced by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).
The agreement ended last September.
Also speaking on behalf of the corporation, Nora Flores and her husband Frankie said last week that they and others in the community were left entirely in the dark over any contractual negotiations regarding Gardendale’s water system, a potential full takeover by the city of Cotulla, and any options open to the supply corporation.
She also said that she believes no one in Gardendale expected the water system to fail when it did.
“Everybody was referred to Frankie and me,” Flores said of the calls she received from her fellow community members in the first hours of the system failure. “We never got notified that the city of Cotulla was not operating the well anymore. It took us by surprise. We had no idea this was happening.”
Flores said the corporation’s first concern during the outage was the wellbeing of elderly residents, among them her own mother, who had no safe water supply for five days and no means to obtain sufficient water at short notice.
“We do have a corporation board,” Flores said. “We handed operations over to the city of Cotulla three years ago, but we called the city after the outage and nobody could tell us it was going to be fixed.”
The Gardendale WSC comprises Frankie Flores, Debbie Ringer, Pete Aguilar, Melissa Gonzalez and Carolyn Driver.
For their part, Dovalina and Wright were joined by Cotulla water utility system director Jimmy Oranday in telling the council last week that swift action had in fact been taken, that the city administrator immediately authorized contact with Peerless Equipment to repair or replace the failed pump, and that all effort was made to restore water to the community as quickly as possible.
“Peerless could not come on Sunday,” Oranday said, indicating that Dovalina had authorized the action at the onset of the outage. “Late Monday, they planned to work on it. They pulled the pump out and ordered new equipment. It was installed by Wednesday evening.
“The service is now up and running,” Oranday said on Thursday. “Some repairs took longer than expected.”
Oranday and Wright said the Gardendale water well pump’s production rate had slowed dramatically in the days immediately preceding the outage, dropping from 150 gallons per minute to about 30.
“The residents had some water, but not a lot,” Oranday said.
The new pump has been lowered to a level some 40 feet deeper than its predecessor and is currently producing at least 134 gallons per minute, Oranday said.
Wright said the demand for water among Gardendale’s 45 households rarely exceeds 35 gallons per minute.
Cotulla’s recent history with the Gardendale WSC includes a July 14, 2022, decision by the city council to end its support agreement on October 1. Councilors agreed last summer that they would make an offer to take over the corporation if its members voted to allow it. Without such a vote, according to City Hall, the municipal government would walk away from its support agreement.
There was no indication from the corporation at last week’s council meeting that any such vote had taken place.
Atty. Pena told councilors at their meeting last July that he believes it is vital the community maintain a safe water supply system because, as he put it, the people of Gardendale work, shop and attend school in Cotulla.
“It is crucial to the city that people who live in outlying areas of the county and send their children to our schools and who use our services are healthy and don’t get sick,” the attorney said, “and don’t get anyone else sick.
“Corporations get started, or they die off,” Atty. Pena told the council last July. “They have had some difficulty running it, and the city has been assisting with that.
“We did not have the votes to acquire the system last time,” the city attorney said, referring to an earlier plan by Cotulla to take over the Gardendale WSC. “There is basically no purchase price. If there is a debt [incurred by the corporation], the ratepayers continue to pay it. It doesn’t become an obligation to the city.”
“They don’t have any debt,” Dovalina said at the July meeting. “We have been operating the system since 2019. We have been collecting their bills.”
“If you do this tonight, you will have a functioning water system out there,” Atty. Pena told the council on July 14 of the proposed takeover. “You acquire the asset. The people of Gardendale have to vote to do this. It’s a fairly simple process.
“The residents of Gardendale need to understand that if they don’t do this, the city can’t continue servicing them,” the attorney said.
“We have been friendly neighbors for three years,” Administrator Dovalina said in July. “It’s come time to decide if we are going to proceed or back away.”
“These people don’t just live there and never come to town,” Pena said. “They’re your neighbors. Everything they do affects us. Some of these people might not otherwise have full access to water. That’s why we do what we do.”
The motion to continue operating the Gardendale WSC until Oct. 1 last year, pending the sale of the system to the city of Cotulla, was made by Councilor Manuel Rodriguez, seconded by Councilor Eloy Zertuche and supported by Councilors Alejandro Garcia Jr. and Tanis Lopez. Councilor Gilbert Ayala was absent from the July 14 meeting.
“Let’s have a meeting,” Atty. Pena told the council at the time of the vote to proceed with the takeover plan. “We have the ballots. You dissolve the corporation. Once the people have approved it, you take the ball and run with it.”
On September 21, Atty. Pena wrote an email to Atty. Stephen Ahl, who represents the water corporation, that the Cotulla City Council had indicated the city did not want to continue the operating arrangement with Gardendale WSC past the end of September 2022.
“If there is some indication your client will move on the acquisition,the city will likely reconsider its position,” Atty. Pena wrote. “After budget season is over, the city intends to take official action on its current operating agreement, which I believe has expired.”
On November 24, Atty. Pena again contacted the corporation’s attorney, this time outlining the approximate funds involved in operating the water system, pegging the revenues at $32,400 per year.
“The Gardendale WSC does not generate sufficient surplus revenue to cover operating costs and repairs,” Pena wrote on Nov. 24.
The attorney also relayed Cotulla’s prediction that the Gardendale system was on the brink of failure.
“The well’s pump is nearing the end of its useful life and will probably fail in the near future,” Pena wrote to the WSC attorney. “The water storage tank has been recently repaired by the city and will need to be replaced… It is a matter of time before a system-wide failure will occur.”
Atty. Pena reiterated the view of Cotulla City Hall that assisting the Gardendale system to continue operating a water utility was done not only out of neighborliness but also to deflect the TCEQ. That agency, he said, may require Gardendale WSC to find a water system operator immediately in order to remain in compliance with state regulations.
Pena also noted last year that he believed revenues did not meet operating expenses in Gardendale because the utility system’s customers “have not had their rates adjusted.”
“The city previously gave Gardendale WSC until the end of September to reply to the city’s offer to purchase the system,” Atty. Pena wrote on Nov. 24. “The deadline has long since passed.”
The WSC attorney replied on Nov. 25 that he would consult with his client.
“So, Attorney Ahl knew about the situation,” Councilor Gilbert Ayala said last week of the November communications. “Whose responsibility would it be to notify the people of Gardendale? Someone dropped the ball.”
Wright estimated that replacing the 25-year-old 50,000-gallon water storage tank at Gardendale may cost $150,000 in addition to the $40,000 spent last week on repairing the well.
“The city did the best that it could in the circumstances,” Mayor Garcia said last week. “I hope that Gardendale understands we didn’t know the pump was going to fail. We did what we did at no cost to the citizens. We did what we could to get water to Gardendale.”
“We got a letter in September,” Nora Flores said of last year’s talks between the city of Cotulla and the water corporation. “The board had not decided whether to sell to the city.”
“We were negotiating terms,” Gonzalez said of the proposed takeover. “There were no protections for the citizens, in case of a system failure. We wanted a guarantee. We wanted it in writing.
“We don’t know where we stand today,” Gonzalez said last week. “We need a grant writer.”
Cotulla councilors returned from closed-door discussions to vote for an end to any agreement over the Gardendale water system. Councilor Tanis Lopez abstained from the vote.
“The city undertook $40,000 in funds to support another community,” Councilor Lopez said. “We have to carry that burden. We are going to end up in the eyes of the taxpayer with a bullseye on us, just for being good natured.”
“For trying to do a good deed, we got thrown under the bus,” Mayor Garcia said at the close of last week’s meeting, referring to negative response from Gardendale residents. “I feel for the citizens of Gardendale. They were not notified by their attorney. He did not relay to them what was going to happen.
“Even though we are the ones who look bad, we fixed their problem,” the mayor said. “All we were trying to do was help.”
Speaking in lieu of Atty. Pena at last week’s meeting, Atty. Patrick Lindner indicated there is still some confusion over how much information related both to ending an agreement and a proposed takeover was ever made clear to the people of Gardendale.
“We are not privy to what they attorney said or who he said it to,” Atty. Lindner said last week. “A Gardendale board member said they had no notice.”
“They got a new pump, and they got water,” the mayor said.
The following day, Cotulla City Hall posted notices on its doors to notify the public that it would no longer accept water utility bill payments from the residents of Gardendale.
“It’s not an easy decision, to walk away from an agreement,” the mayor said after councilors had voted to break ties with Gardendale. “We did what was on the contract.”