A quick review of the numbers, and one will realize that local government debt in Texas is a silent crisis in the waiting – with staggering numbers continuously amassing unchecked, unchallenged, and unnoticed.
Odessa is no exception.
A study conducted in 2020 by the Texas Public Policy Foundation found that the principal debt owed by local governments was at that time around $240 billion, or with interest owed a combined $365.3 billion.
You can best think of that as every man, woman, and child being indebted by local government to the tune of $12,500 per share.
For the City of Odessa, current financial documents show that the city has issued over $168 million in debt, currently has a little over $100 million in unspent funds, and is liable for a combined principal and interest of $223 million.
Tuesday, the city council plans to hold their initial vote to use certificates of obligation to add another $95 million in debt, with combined interest on the 20-year note estimated to total over $130 million.
While we have been told that the funding will be earmarked for “critical” water infrastructure projects, details have not exactly been forthcoming from the city staff putting the project together, largely because it appears they may not yet even know what all the projects will entail.
This is not a way to run a business or a local government.
We applaud Mayor Joven, and council members Swanner, and Matta for simply asking questions, and seeking to be informed on the vote, and for their efforts to inform Odessa voters on what the project will entail.
We also condemn in the strongest terms the cheap political antics that have been employed by the other members of the council, who appear willing to go to any length to avoid hearing the resounded voices of the voters in the recent election that the old “trust us” tax and spend ways are over.
Government waste and spending is a crisis of unpreceded proportion, at both the local and federal levels. However, with local government, we believe voters should have a stronger means of controlling exactly what their tax bill looks like.
While we recognize the need for local government to have the means to address critical issues and emergencies quickly, we also recognize that good government should act with restraint to only use certificates of obligation sparingly and when appropriate.
Elected members of the council should employ every means available to them to inform the voters before having to issue debt or pass a bond and that includes going to the media, using social media, or holding townhalls – not sitting angrily perched on the council dais seemingly declaring “I know better than you.”
The fact that city management found in late 2019 that the water infrastructure could take a backseat to prioritize another debt issuance totaling $93 million for a laundry list of pet issues, including a new animal shelter and park improvements, we find it appropriate to question the “critical” nature of the water infrastructure spending now before the council.
Either city management prioritized parks and a $10 million animal shelter before securing clean water for Odessans, or they are not being truthful.
Either way, Odessans deserve answers, and they deserve the truth.
The Odessa City Council should do the right thing Tuesday, and at a minimum, table the issuance of another $95 million in public debt until the effort can be made to bring the facts to the people, and then to work to obtain the consent and approval of the taxpayers who will be footing the bill.
Odessans have a right to be informed, and they should have the right to vote.