Border Bound

Is Elton Bomer the bully who's needed to help colonias -- or just another political grandstander?

Today he commutes from Austin to his home in East Texas each weekend to spend time with his wife, Ginny, who has Alzheimer's disease. During the week, the couple talk on the phone two or three times a day. It's hard, he says, because some days she is less lucid than others. One recent morning he was pouring her coffee when she stared up at him blankly and asked, "Now, who are you again?"

Bomer had been secretary of state only two weeks when he called two state officials into his office to brief him on the progress their agencies were making on bringing water and sewer services to colonias. He listened politely for a bit before going ballistic.

"I was frustrated," Bomer says. "All the discussion was about how well we had done in the last year or so. And in my frustration I said, 'I'm not interested in what we did last year. I'm interested in what we've done since eight o'clock this morning.' "

Bomer had set the tone. The dawdling days were over.
This is no time to relax. Incidences of Hepatitis A and other diseases transmitted through poor sanitation are much higher in the colonias than anywhere else in Texas. They are as much as five times above the national average, says Dr. Laurence Nickey, a member of the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission and retired director of the El Paso City-County Health Department.

When it comes to bringing clean water and effective sewer service to colonias, money hasn't been the problem. In the last ten years $579 million has been available for those projects. In November 1989 Texas voters approved $100 million in bonds, and two years after that they supported an additional $150 million. The federal government, through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has pitched in $300 million, and the state has appropriated $29 million since 1991.

The backlog on water and sewer projects is so great, however, that the Texas Water Development Board, which bankrolls their construction, stopped accepting applications for new projects two years ago. When the backlog is cleared -- no one is certain when that will be -- 72 percent, or about 283,000 of the estimated 392,000 colonia residents, will have water, sewer or both. Others will never be served. State officials determined that some colonias are so remote that it would be cheaper to relocate residents than to construct new water and sewer systems.

Of the 90 projects the Water Development Board has approved since 1990, a mere 22 have been completed, serving about 53,000 residents, or less than 14 percent of the overall colonia population. Another ten projects are under construction to serve an additional 58,000 people. Water Development Board officials hope to have most of those projects done in the next 12 months. When those ten projects are done, the state still will have spent just $182 million of the $579 million it has set aside for colonias.

The majority of the board-approved projects have yet to break ground. The state has committed $124 million for 20 additional projects currently in the design stage. Those would boost the number of colonia residents being served to 162,000, still less than half of the total population. The board approved 38 other projects that have yet to progress past their initial planning stage.

In the ten years since Texas voters approved the first bonds, many state officials have tried to take the lead on colonias. Too many, it seems. A lack of coordination among the various federal, state and local officials and agencies working on the issue has been part of the problem. On the state level alone, at least five offices and agencies play a role in colonia programs: attorney general, secretary of state, Water Development Board, Housing and Community Affairs, and the Natural Resource Conservation Commission. The state Senate already has approved legislation that would let the governor designate a single office, such as secretary of state, to coordinate all colonia programs; Bush is trying to do that now by designating Bomer his colonias point man.

In the past decade, former attorney general Dan Morales was the closest to being an unofficial state czar on colonias. He gained legislation in 1993 that gave his office the right to sue colonia developers. A bill passed in 1995, drafted by his office, aimed at stopping the proliferation of colonias by banning developments without water and wastewater services.

Morales created the superhero-sounding Colonias Strike Force. The team of lawyers initiated several dozen enforcement actions against developers, the most highly touted against former Starr County Judge Blas Chapa and his business partner, Elias Lopez. While damages and civil penalties total in the multimillions, Attorney General John Cornyn's office confirms that the judgments have yielded chump change. Typically the developers were either penniless or long gone by the time Morales got to them.

Morales says the cases still are significant as deterrents. They also served as great public relations tools for him. His case against Chapa garnered him publicity, as did an appearance on 60 Minutes in 1995 in which he was depicted as a kind of colonias terminator.

Cornyn inherits the enforcement authority. He says his office will continue to seek injunctions to shut down illegal developments even if there is no money to be recovered. But he says he disagrees with the notion that getting a good headline is an end unto itself. "My goal is to combine any publicity with follow-through and any sort of punitive action we can obtain through judgments or injunctions. That way, you've gotten the public's attention, and you've put someone out of business, too."

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