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On the Texas Border, Building Infrastructure Is Hard. Critics Say It's About to Get Harder.

The state's budget cuts target "colonias," makeshift subdivisions of mostly poor people outside city limits.

dog walks through yard of home in colonia
A dog walks through the yard of a home in the colonia of Penitas, Texas.
(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
For half a million people in the border regions of Texas, getting basic infrastructure -- the kind that most Americans take for granted -- has taken decades. These residents have to cope with problems like streets overflowing with sewage from sand-filled septic tanks, high levels of toxic arsenic in their drinking water or roads that flood during the summer monsoons.

But fixing those problems could get even tougher next month thanks to Texas' budget cuts, advocates there say.

The predominantly poor residents of colonias -- makeshift subdivisions often far outside city limits -- have bought land or cheap houses from unscrupulous developers who promised to eventually install electricity, running water and paved roads. The developers often failed to deliver.

Texas cracked down on the worst offenders in the 1990s, but change has been slow. Many of these communities still lack even the most basic infrastructure systems.

The neighborhoods are often so remote that connecting them to city sewer lines or drinking water is prohibitively expensive, at least for the local governments that would normally foot the bill. Putting in a sewer system to serve 5,000 people in an El Paso-area colonia, for example, is expected to cost as much as $40 million. The haphazard development in colonias makes upgrades difficult, too, because it’s hard to install sidewalks and sewer pipes where roads are steep, rights-of-way aren’t clear and houses are unevenly spread out. Sometimes the houses are even in floodplains.

Still, government officials have stepped in to address some of the problems. Local, state and federal officials developed programs to install water systems, deliver health services and build roads in colonias. In 1999, Gov. George W. Bush signed a law that created a state ombudsman program to help colonia residents figure out the myriad programs available to help them.

The ombudsmen's program was also responsible for tracking the state's progress in improving conditions in colonias and reporting those results to the legislature. In its last report, the office reported that the number of people living in colonias with the worst conditions dropped from 44,526 in 353 neighborhoods in 2010 to 37,862 people in 337 colonias in 2014. 

But Gov. Greg Abbott this summer effectively terminated Bush's program. The secretary of state, who administers the program, had asked to maintain funding for it at $860,000 for the next two years. But Abbott vetoed that spending from the state budget. The move came as a surprise to many officials who represent border areas with colonias, because there had been almost no talk in recent years of cutting the program. 

But the governor’s office calls eliminating the ombudsmen's program a matter of fiscal responsibility.

“No services to the colonias have been interrupted as a result of eliminating this redundant program,” says Abbott spokesman John Wittman. “The governor believes that funding to the colonias should go directly to the colonias instead of using tax dollars to fund a bigger government bureaucracy. With the governor’s action, Texas is shrinking government without interrupting services to the colonias.”

But Rep. Mary González, whose El Paso-area district includes more than 260 colonias, says the veto “will have consequences for people’s health and safety.” It either shows the governor doesn’t understand the needs of the colonia residents or that he’s allowing politics to supersede policy, she says. The decision will have few political consequences for Abbott, she adds: Most of the people affected -- poor, Hispanic and likely Democratic -- are already upset with Abbott for signing a law earlier this year targeting “sanctuary cities” and cracking down on unauthorized immigrants.

González says the state coordinators help colonia residents navigate the complex and often confusing array of services avaiable to them. But Wittman, the governor’s spokesman, says the ombudsman program actually adds “another level of bureaucratic red tape.” When the program is eliminated next month, he says, coordination will happen directly between the state agencies providing services and the colonias.

Sam Taylor, a spokesman for Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, also emphasizes that the changes would be primarily administrative. (In Texas, the governor appoints the secretary of state.)

“State agencies’ coordination of colonias projects has evolved significantly since the program’s inception,” he says. “We expect there to be no diminishment of tangible benefits to colonias residents, as infrastructure, agriculture, water, housing and public health programs dedicated to colonias projects continue to be funded in the current budget.”

Without state-level coordination among agencies, though, some local officials are worried that the responsibilities will fall to them.

“For the county, the loss of the ombudsmen office is a big loss for us,” says El Paso County Commissioner Vincent Perez. “In the time I’ve been in office, the ombudsmen’s office has been the one I’ve been dealing with the most when it comes to dealing with infrastructure in the colonias.”

Other state agencies haven’t come forward to tell local communities that they might be eligible for colonia-related programs, and they haven’t coordinated among government agencies, Perez says.

Meanwhile, the options for counties to step in are limited. Counties are already financially strapped, because the state limits the taxes they can impose, which makes it more difficult for them to pay for services in place of the state coordinators. Texas law also prevents counties from imposing zoning requirements on developments that could’ve prevented many of the ongoing problems with colonias, Perez says.

“Our county was created in 1850, and honestly, it hasn’t changed much since then. We’re using 19th-century tools to deal with 21st-century problems,” he says. “Texas values very limited government, and county governments certainly reflect that.”

Perez says pressure to address the infrastructure problems in colonias will continue to build, especially in the El Paso area, where the sprawling city is encroaching on once-isolated neighborhoods. That will actually make it easier to solve some problems, like extending sewer lines. But it also means that other issues, such as flooding caused by inadeqaute infrastructure, will start to impact more and more people. 

And it’s not feasible for many families currently living in colonias to move out, he adds, because affordable housing is hard to find for poor residents.

“You’re talking about a family that’s lived there for three decades that now owns their property free and clear. To them, it’s a source of pride,” Perez says. “There’s a lot of people out there who think [colonia residents] should move somewhere else or be relocated. It’s not that simple. That’s why it’s important to have folks with a lot of expertise in the area of colonias. The office of the ombudsman very often provided that.”

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