Border Bound

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

Valley Interfaith officials say better coordination is a step in the right direction but that the main obstacle in accelerating water and sewer projects in colonias is a lack of political will by local officials. That is illustrated in one project that has remained stuck in an embryonic planning stage for at least eight years, says Janie Rangel, a Valley Interfaith organizer. The $40-million project is supposed to bring water and wastewater service to about 20,000 colonia residents in western Hidalgo County, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

That project and others experiencing long delays tend to get dragged down by small-town politics, Valley Interfaith members say. Although the state doles out the money for construction, cities, counties or water districts build the projects.

Greed can play a part as different local entities argue over the jurisdictional right to provide the services. Those fights can take years to resolve.

The local entities select project engineers who sometimes are picked more for their political and family ties than for their qualifications. The result is further delay.

"The politics can change almost daily," Rangel says. "You have to be very organized just to keep up."

Ray Rodriguez, Socorro's mayor, says it is unfair for state officials and local advocates to blame local politics when government red tape is often responsible.

"When we are going to spend federal and state moneys to service these people, we have to follow the government's processes, and that legal system will tie you up," he says. "But I guess they'd rather blame somebody else."

When Bomer met with Valley Interfaith, the group recommended legislation that would let the Water Development Board go over the head of a local authority by firing an incompetent engineer and hiring its own. The board currently can take that hard-line approach only on the rare project that is financed entirely through federal money. Bomer brought the firing idea to Bush, and it now is a key part of the bill that already has passed the Senate.

"We are in the unenviable position of being held accountable even though we're not the ones doing the projects," says Craig Pedersen, board executive director. Although his agency has been limited by legal constraints, Pedersen admits it was too passive in the past in dealing with local officials and engineers in charge of the projects.

"Where I think we've come up short is that we've been too nice to too many people for too long," he says. "We held their hands to get them through the process when we should have held their feet to the fire."

Bomer is far better at the latter than the former, and that fact is not lost on Pedersen. In the water development board's defense, moving along projects impeded by politics takes more political savvy than that possessed by an agency made up of engineers. Bomer thinks he has that savvy.

"The colonia problem doesn't lend itself to quick results. No one knows that better than me," says Pedersen, who has been on the job since July 1991. "But Secretary Bomer's impatience has been infectious. For some of us, we had gotten so immersed in the problems, we probably weren't forcing the solutions as vigorously as we could have. His impatience has made me less patient. I think that's a good strategy."

Other Bomer recommendations in the bill also show his desire to prevent further delays and overcome bureaucratic impediments. The bill calls for hiring six ombudsmen in border counties to help identify problems. It would allow people who are not licensed plumbers to install water and sewer lines and permit water and sewer hookups in areas that do not meet road-width requirements.

Senator Eddie Lucio, a Democrat from Brownsville who is sponsoring the bill, says Bomer has the attitude that this legislative session will not end without passage of a meaningful colonias bill.

"I feel good about its chances," Lucio says. "Elton's stature, which is overpowering, and his assertiveness can help make the difference. Knowing Elton, he won't allow anyone to run over him."

The Socorro mayor wasn't running over Bomer; he was eluding him. A week after stalking Mayor Rodriguez, Bomer isn't there yet.

Bomer placed five phone calls to the mayor without a return call, so he fired off a letter to him with a direct message: "I would appreciate a full explanation as to why the city of Socorro has not approved a new plat for Colonia Las Palmas, and what could legitimately delay this process for so long."

He then sent copies of the letter to each member of the Socorro City Council, Pedersen of the Water Development Board, two state legislators who represent the area and others who could apply pressure on the mayor.

Rodriguez, who returned a call from the Houston Press within 24 hours, says he didn't call Bomer back because "basically I've been busy." He adds, "My reaction when reading the letter was, 'Hey, wait a minute!' I hate it when I get a letter like this that says we're not doing enough when I have the facts right here."

The facts according to Rodriguez are that the city holds one of nine liens against the bankrupt property and is trying to convince other lien holders to waive the back taxes so the water and sewer system can be built.

"Everyone has to come to a consensus," Rodriguez says. "I have not forgotten the needs of the residents there." Rodriguez plans to fire back a response to the letter.

Bomer is learning that nothing about colonias is ever simple.

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