By Jeff Russell
As a lifelong Odessan I am always hesitant to give voice to the idea that Midland has anything that is better than what we have in Odessa. However, when it comes to funding major municipal projects it seems Midland’s city council has it right and the majority of Odessa’s council has it wrong.
In 2017, the Midland City Council presented a detailed $195,000 bond proposal to the public to “restore, repair, and resurface” 43 different roadways in Midland. Understandably, several members of the Council had sticker shock over the total price tag for the needed work. After much debate over the scope and size of the work needed the Midland City Council ultimately brought forward two bond proposals: one for $74,000,000 for road projects and a second bond for just under $26,000,000 for water utility projects.
After these bonds were proposed Midland’s Mayor and City Council began the hard but necessary work of educating voters on the need for the funding and over the course of the next several months completed 72 town hall meetings across the city. The Council also rallied local business leaders to help prove the need for the new funding.
The end result was that both measures were approved by over 57% of Midland voters. Since passage, the City Council has provided regular and detailed updates as to the progress of the work which has reassured Midland voters that they made the right choice in passing the bond.
In another project, Midland just completed a $136 million refurbishment of their water treatment plant using the proceeds of their water sales to Pioneer Resources to fund this massive project.
The current situation in Odessa is another story.
A voting block of four Odessa City Council members – Tom Sprawls, Steve Thompson, Marah Willis, and Dedra White – believe Odessa shouldn’t look to existing revenue sources (we too have a deal with Pioneer Resources to sell water that has currently brought in over $40 million and will continue to bring in $10-12 million more per year) to complete needed work to our water plant. This voting block has also publicly stated that Odessa voters can’t be trusted with deciding whether or not the city should spend approximately $100,000,000 on repairs to our water treatment plant by issuing bonds. Citing the dire condition of our plant, these four Council members have declared an emergency even though the condition of the plant was well documented in a 2016 engineering report. Since the report debuted in 2016 the City Council at that time – which included Tom Sprawls, Marah Willis, and Dedra White – issued $93,000,000 in debt without taxpayer approval to fund other, less urgent, city projects such as a $10,000,000 animal shelter and tens of millions in park upgrades. This same group also approved millions in cost overruns for the Ector Theater refurbishment and the Convention Center project.
During recent City Council meetings City Councilman Steve Thompson said “I don’t think we can afford to take the risk of an election where voters may vote it down.” Other Council members have expressed similar concerns and during the same meeting Councilman Sprawls made a claim that “that this [repayment of the proposed debt] is not coming out of the taxpayer’s money.” These four continue to throw out other false information like if we they take it a bond election and it’s defeated it would three years before they could try again and this could create a critical emergency.
However, certificates of obligation – should they be issued by Council – directly impact the taxes we all pay and will again increase water rates for all residences and businesses. It should be noted that Councilman Sprawls voted against issuing $93,000,000 in debt previously when he was outvoted but privately confided after that vote that he would have voted for the issuance had his vote been needed to pass the issue. Now, when his vote obviously matters, much like the Republican politicians that repeatedly voted against Obama Care when they knew they didn’t have the votes to stop it but failed to vote against it when they were in the majority, Mr. Sprawls has attempted to explain his flip-flop.
Here’s the bottom line. The voting block of four City Council members – Sprawls, Thompson, Willis, and White – don’t think they should do the hard work of finding funding for this project from existing sources and don’t think Odessa voters are smart enough to make wise spending decisions when it comes to major infrastructure projects or they simply don’t want to be bothered with doing the hard work – like the 72 town hall meetings Midland officials conducted to pass the road bond – to educate voters on the need for the additional funding. Whether it’s the free-spending four’s smug superiority when they claim they know better than voters or their laziness to get out and find the money or convince voters of the need, the fact is that Odessa voters and taxpayers are being poorly represented by these four and the entire City Council should follow the lead of Mayor Joven and Council members Swanner and Matta and call for this project to be paid for with existing available funds or, at the least, by calling a bond issue and letting voters decide whether or not to add $100,000,000 to our city’s ever increasing debt load.
Odessa voters deserve smart decision making, fiscal responsibility, and a say over increasing our debt and we’re being poorly represented by the free spending four.
Jeff Russell is an Odessa businessman and was appointed to the Odessa Development Council by Councilmember Denise Swanner recently. He was also appointed to the TIRZ board by Councilmember Mark Matta recently.