A City Council Workshop last week included a heated exchange at times between Odessa Mayor Javier Joven and City Councilmember Steve Thompson over the need to take the issuance of debt by the city to taxpayers for approval at the ballot box.
A consultant for the city has estimated in a report that the city’s water treatment plant requires almost $100 million in repairs and updates to meet current and future city needs. This report, authored in 2016, was presented to the previous City Council who have since drawn criticism for prioritizing other large spending projects like downtown improvements over essential infrastructure needs that have continued to get worse.
During the recent Mayoral and City Council races the issue of incurring debt without voter approval was a major campaign topic with now Mayor Javier Joven and city council members Denise Swanner and Mark Matta vowing to reject any debt issuance without first getting voter approval.
“Anytime that the City or any other governmental entity issues debt that taxpayers will be forced to repay I believe the issuance must be approved by taxpayers,” stated Mayor Javier Joven in an interview with Odessa Headlines. “It is important that, in this case, the City is able to present its case to the taxpayers, to spend the time necessary to educate taxpayers about the need, and to seek their approval. I am totally against issuing debt without taxpayer approval.”
During the meeting, Councilman Thompson sharply disagreed with the Mayor pressing for the City to issue Certificates of Obligation or CO’s. COs are debt that Texas law allows governmental bodies to issue without public input or approval. These debt instruments were originally designed to allow for emergency funds to be quickly raised to respond to a major weather event or catastrophe from which a quick recovery is required. COs have become an increasingly popular tool for government agencies to issue unlimited debt without the need to ask for voter approval through a bond election.
Councilmember Mari Willis said during the workshop that “the water treatment plant is not in good condition and needs to be addressed quickly” indicating that she is in favor of issuing debt without a bond election vote.
“During my campaign, I promised voters that I wouldn’t issue debt for projects such as this without first seeking voter approval and I intend to stand by my promise.” stated Councilmember Matta in a telephone interview.
Councilmember Swanner echoed Matta’s comments. “The fact is that while the water treatment plant needs serious repairs, to suddenly proclaim this as an emergency when the need for repairs has been known for years leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It would have been much better if the previous council had better prioritized their spending and completed some of the work needed on Odessa’s basic infrastructure. If we need to spend the money we should be able to make our case to the voters first.”
Odessa Headlines will continue to monitor this story.