A proposal by Odessa City Manager Michael Marrero’s office to circumvent Odessan’s right to vote on major public funding projects by exploiting a loophole in state law is moving forward, with the first public hearing on the debt issuance set for this Tuesday. 

The certificates of obligation totaling $95 million will be the second debt issuance spearheaded by Marrero’s office recently, despite past public opposition against the continued abuse of the funding mechanism that circumvents bond elections. 

Without a bond election, taxpayers and voters will get no say before substantial amounts of debt is passed by the city to be paid for with a combination of property tax and water rate hikes.

Marrero’s office also successfully navigated a $93 million debt issuance through city council approval in late 2019 despite public outcry.

Notably, a substantial portion of the 2019 debt issuance remains unspent, with the city council only recently voting to spend over $8 million from the 2019 debt to build a new animal shelter – at a cost of over $400 per square foot.

With the latest proposal to spend $95 million towards critical water infrastructure projects, some Odessa residents have been angered at the way the debt issuances have been structured by the city management to fund “luxury spending projects” before taking care of critical infrastructure needs. 

“I’m fine if people want new things, but when it’s a major project let’s put it to a vote and make the proposal a reasonable one. It seems to me the city administration is always putting the luxury spending projects first, making it way too expensive, and putting the critical needs last” Odessa resident Tim Harry told Odessa Headlines, weighing in further saying “someone needs to tell the city manager to get their priorities straight and stop trying to take away my vote.”  

Circumventing the right to vote on major public spending projects was a major issue during the Odessa City Council races last year, with two incumbents who voted for the last debt issuance being handily voted out of office. 

Despite the election of three new council-members who oppose issuing debt, Marrero is moving forward with the debt issuance with the apparent support of four other council-members, including Tom Sprawls, Detra White, Mara Willis, and Steve Thompson. 

Thompson has weighed in on the issue regarding why he supports issuing debt versus having a bond election at a previous work session on the issue, and again later telling an Odessa resident that average Odessans are not capable of understanding the issue.  

“They [voters] don’t have these numbers. And there’s no way you can communicate all these numbers to the general public where they can understand it” Thompson said. 

Odessa Headlines recently interviewed Mayor Javier Joven on this very issue, with the mayor offering his counter position to Thompson that he believes the voters should have a say in the matter. 

“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,” Jovan stated. 

Joven stated that he has been pushing to prioritize spending towards critical infrastructure issues over other non-essential projects and the city could pay for a substantial amount of the water projects out of existing funds. 

However, Joven says his approach of prioritizing spending and fiscal responsibility is so far being rejected in favor of what he called the “old way of spend, spend, spend, debt, debt, debt.”

At-Large City Councilwoman Denise Swanner told Odessa Headlines that she is concerned about the debt issuance because it continues a trend of denying Odessans of the right to vote on major projects. Swanner stated she is also very concerned about how these repetitive tax and water rate increases will hurt those suffering the most from the economic downturn and the negative effect water rate increases will have on Odessa senior citizens.

“I completely agree that we need to address critical infrastructure issues as soon as possible,” Swanner said. “Unfortunately, past administrations kicked the can down the road knowing this needed to be addressed. I’m really worried that more tax and spend is going to further hurt those already hurting from the downturn and our seniors, and all because we cannot seem to get our priorities straight.”

The Odessa City Council is set to hold a public workshop discussion on debt issuance this Tuesday, June 1 at 3:00 PM at the Odessa City Hall. 

Matt Stringer is a journalist from Odessa, Texas.