$95M water treatment project up-in-the-air

The Odessa City Council this week admitted publicly for the first time that they may have to scrap their scheduled July 27 vote to use certificates of obligation to pay for a $95 million rehabilitation of the current water plant.

That’s because the Ector County Republican Party has until the start of the July 27 council meeting to turn in petitions that would instead place a $95 million CO issue on a future ballot and instead allow voters to decide whether the city should proceed with the rehabilitation project. COs only require a vote by council to proceed.

“It’s all hypothetical at this point until July 27,” Mayor Javier Joven said during council’s Tuesday work session.

Joven, who supports a public vote, and council briefly discussed next week’s possible scenarios and what might happen if the GOP successfully forces a public vote.

Council agreed to cut their discussion short until they see what happens next week.

City Secretary Norma Grimaldo, who oversees city elections, said the GOP has until the start of council’s July 27 meeting to submit a minimum of 2,798 voter signatures, or 5 percent of the total number of current registered voters, which is 55,950.

As of Wednesday, the Republican group had not submitted the petitions, city officials confirmed.

GOP Chairwoman Tisha Crow could not be reached for comment.

Assistant City Manager of Administrative Services Cindy Muncy told council that if they approve the COs next Tuesday, the city would receive the funds by Oct. 12 and work on the water plant could likely begin by the end of the year.

If the GOP submits the required number of signatures in time, things become a little more complicated, Muncy said.

The signatures would have to be verified and approved by the Ector County Elections Office before an election could be scheduled, Muncy explained.

The problem, Muncy explained, is that the county election’s office will be closed during the first two weeks of August because election staff will be attending an out-of-town training session.

County election officials have said they could have staff review and verify the petition signatures prior to their departure but would have to charge the city for employee overtime to do the work, Muncy said. The cost to the city would depend on how many election staff members are needed and how many hours they work.

Muncy said the city would also need to work with the GOP on ballot language if the bond goes to a public vote.

“Citizens would need to understand that the intent is to repay the bond with water and sewer funds, not property taxes,” Muncy said.

A social media push this week incorrectly states that property taxes will be used to repay the CO.

The certificates of obligation route appears to have enough council votes to be approved.

Council members Mari Willis, Tom Sprawls, Steve Thompson and Detra White in June voted in favor of pursuing certificates of obligation bond to pay for the water treatment plant rehabilitation. Joven, Mark Matta and Denise Swanner voted against because they favored the idea of having voters decide the issue. A majority 4-3 vote is required to approve the COs.

If voters defeated the bond request, the city would not be able to pursue a CO for three years, Muncy has previously warned council.

City administrators have said the 60-year-old water treatment plant is in dire need of repairs and upgrading, and warn the system could fail at any time, potentially leaving thousands of Odessans without water.

The proposed rehabilitation project would include extensive upgrades to the current plant’s electrical and computer systems, chemical feed and filter systems and chemical storage facility, Public Works Director Tom Kerr has previously told council.

Joven has repeatedly questioned city official’s claims that the water treatment facility is in dire straits. Joven has said that the cost of an election would be about $100,000. Crow recently disputed Joven’s figure, stating she believes the cost would be much less.