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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Sarita Kenedy East is rolling over in her grave right now. She would never let this continue!

Regulations change, county colonias don't

No action so far on developer rules; no new grant funds received by Nueces

June 12, 2006

The thought of border-style squalid living conditions on the outskirts of the Sparkling City by the Sea didn't seem to cross legislators' minds almost 20 years ago when they authored laws to do something about those conditions.

That changed last year when state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa's bill recognizing colonias in Nueces County became law.

The law gave county commissioners the authority to impose and enforce stricter rules on the developers of unincorporated land, requiring them to provide paved streets, water and sewer lines. The law also exempted Nueces County from a statistical quirk that made the county ineligible for state funding despite the plight of the people in the colonias. Previously, because Corpus Christi accounts for most of the county's population, the city pushed the county's median income too high and its unemployment rate too low to qualify for colonia assistance, throwing a statistical mask over these pockets of poverty.

What is a colonia?

Politicians, state agencies, social services and people who live there all conjure different images for colonia. According to the Texas Secretary of State, a colonia is a community along the Texas-Mexico border that may lack some of the most basic living necessities, such as potable water and sewer systems, electricity, paved roads, and safe and sanitary housing.
Another law also was passed last session that made funding available to all areas that met the new criteria - that median household incomes not exceed 75 percent of the state average.

So far those laws haven't changed anything for the people of the colonias in Nueces County. The aid requires action by county officials - action that hasn't occurred. They must adopt and enforce the rules for developers.

Commissioners have said for months that they were going to take a vote on whether to adopt the model subdivision rules. Since the laws were passed last June, County Engineer Glen Sullivan has said his staff was working on fine-tuning the rules for developers. The new laws went into effect Sept. 1.

"(The proposed new rules) are almost ready," Commissioner Betty Jean Longoria said Friday. "A lot of it is the legality that you have to go through to put them together. It's just really a matter of someone looking into it and deciding what we need."

Commissioner Chuck Cazalas said he thought Longoria was working on it. "I really don't know," he said. "I don't think I have any colonias in my precinct."

Commissioner Oscar Ortiz said he was unclear about the laws and what was the next step for commissioners. But he did say he was aware of the problems in colonias and that "we need to look at the funding to make sure that the state provides money for their mandates."

"The county has to decide what it is that we want and what we can afford as far as enforcing any rules and regulations that we may adopt," Ortiz said. "Eventually we will come up with a plan."

Attempts to reach Commissioner Peggy Banales and County Judge Terry Shamsie were unsuccessful.

Even if commissioners vote to adopt the new rules, Sullivan pointed to another obstacle. He says he has no staff to enforce the rules. The funds - from the state's water development board, of which neighboring San Patricio County has received millions in the past two decades - are available only if these rules are enforced.

There are myriad definitions for colonias. Politicians, state agencies, social services and people who live there all conjure different images for colonia. Other definitions include exact distances from the border or a measure of income and unemployment rates found there.

According to the Texas Secretary of State, a colonia is a community along the Texas-Mexico border that may lack some of the most basic living necessities, such as potable water and sewer systems, electricity, paved roads, and safe and sanitary housing.

Beginning in the early 1990s, the 1,600 colonias along the border began receiving help from state officials.

One of the most active state agencies in helping colonias is the Texas Water Development Board's Economically Distressed Areas Program, established in a 1989 law to provide water and wastewater services to colonia residents who couldn't afford them. The law also required that new rural residential subdivisions have water and wastewater services.

Border colonias have received $501 million in Economically Distressed Areas Program funds for 93 projects that cover 781 colonias. More than $44 million more remains available, according to state reports.

San Patricio and Bee counties, though not on the border, were included in the long list of counties approved for state funding for first-time water and wastewater projects. That's because those two counties met low-income and unemployment requirements.

Not so for Nueces County, until Hinojosa's sponsored exemption from those requirements.

Although people in the colonias were poor, the overall numbers for Nueces County weren't low enough to qualify because Corpus Christi's employment and income rates skewed the picture. To be eligible, the entire county needed a per capita household income of 25 percent below the state average and unemployment rates 25 percent above the state average.

Qualifying for the funding only was part of the process, said Josephine Miller, who was San Patricio County judge when that county qualified. She said getting the millions in grants for colonias in San Patricio County wasn't easy. She and her colleagues had to make it a priority.

Miller said she recalls the commissioners sentiments while working on the county's budget: "One of the people on the court said they didn't think it was too much of the American Dream, at the end of the 20th century, that there ought to be running water."

Nueces County grants administrator Roxana Hunt said the county always is looking for grants to help colonia residents.

The county was awarded a $90,000 comprehensive planning study grant in 1998 from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. That study, which found and analyzed 36 colonias in the county, recommended a five-year capital improvement plan.

No further work has been done on it because the two grants the county applied for were denied, Hunt said.

So far, the county has used $3.1 million in funds for colonia projects through programs such as the Office of Rural Community Affairs, the Texas Community Development Program and the South Texas Water Authority. A small part of that total amount was paid in matching funds by the county.

Hunt said the estimates of colonias are not accurate because colonias have grown since the study. She said there is much more work to do. Part of that job is educating people about the conditions that exist in colonias.

"There are so many people out there who believe it isn't anyone's problem to correct these issues - and there are even more who have no idea Nueces County has colonia issues," Hunt said.

Before last year's law was enacted, county officials didn't have the authority to enforce the laws at Tierra Grande, near Petronila, or any of the other colonias in the county.

Hinojosa used conditions at Tierra Grande to explain the need for the law.

"Septic tanks overflowed with human waste. Parents carried their children through the wastewater to the county highway so they could catch the school bus. Mail was not delivered for a month. Cars and trucks were ruined. Tests showed that well water - the main water source for cooking, washing and bathing, had three times the acceptable amount of E. coli bacteria. Conservative estimates numbered some 10,000 persons living in 40 to 50 colonias, in third-world conditions," his bill read.

Tierra Grande was born when siblings Birdie Yvonne Messer and the late Winston White Jr. sold their deceased father's ranch- and farmland in 1978. The developers then divvied it up to people who wanted a place to call their own.

These people arranged to pay the developers for the land a little at a time, in contracts for deeds. Residents moved trailer homes or built modest dwellings with whatever materials they could scrounge. They would allow other family members to set up their dwellings on their land, and soon the situation became too many homes on too little land.

All of these residents had no electricity, clean drinking water or flushing toilets. Many of them say the developers gave them empty promises of providing these services.

Documented minutes from county commissioners court meetings in 1978 noted the substandard conditions. The documents also note that county officials tried to force developers to improve the standards. Threatening letters were sent to the developers. And once, the county sued the developers. Some residents ended up with free land after that suit.

Hinojosa's bill called for:

Allowing Nueces County to prevent future substandard housing from springing up;

Providing the assistance of a colonia ombudsman; and

Making Nueces County eligible for Economic Distressed Areas Program funds from the state.

So far colonias still are proliferating in Nueces County. Signs advertising farmland for sale can be seen next door to the Tierra Grande colonia and in other places along the county's rural roads.

Keta Caballero, a Secretary of State's Office colonia ombudsman who works on the border, has come to Corpus Christi a few times this year to oversee meetings by the county's grant department where a mix of state and local officials gathered to figure out what needs to be done next. Only Commissioner Banales personally has attended a meeting.

Officials with the Texas Water Development Board said the agency is waiting until the current projects are complete before taking new applications for the more than $44 million in funds available. Those projects need to be beyond the design phase before funding new ones, said program administrator Amanda Lavin .

"Adopting and enforcing the model subdivision rules is the first step in a detailed and complicated process," said Neil Haman, another water development board employee who works in the Harlingen office. Haman recommended the county hire someone with experience to help apply for the funds.

So far, Nueces County commissioners haven't put colonias on their meeting agenda.


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