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Omar Palacios, president of the Edinburg school board, addresses hundreds of faculty and staff during the Tuesday, August 19 General Assembly, outlining some of the accomplishments and goals for the largest school districts in South Texas. One of the major issues facing the school district is the detailed groundwork being done to implement the $112 million bond construction measure overwhelmingly approved by area voters last May.  In late August, the school district received news that the state will be sending almost $4 million as part of a long-range plan to eventually pay for more than 50 percent of the total bond construction debt. See related stories later in this posting.  Featured with Palacios at the General Assembly were, from left: Mario Salinas, Assistant Superintendent for District Administration; Palacios; trustee Carmen González; board secretary Ciro Treviño, and board vice president David Torres.

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For the sixth consecutive year, South Texas College will not increase its property tax rate. In fact, STC’s Board of Trustees voted at its August 21, 2008 meeting to slightly lower the college’s rate to $0.1498 per $100 of assessed property valuation, a 2.73 percent decrease from last year’s rate of $0.1540. “We recognize that many constituents in our districts are going through some economic struggles and so we felt it was important to look at ways to reduce the college’s budget, while ensuring that we do not have to raise taxes or tuition,” said Mike Allen, chair of STC’s board of Trustees. “We worked closed with the college’s administration, financial team, faculty and staff to make sure that every penny requested is tied to a student success initiative. We are very proud of all college employees for using restraint and keeping a keen eye on the bottom line – student access and success.”  Featured in this portrait are, from left, sitting: Roy De León; Irene García; and Jesse Villarreal.  Standing, from left: Dr. Alejo Salinas, Jr.; Manuel Benavidez, Jr., Allen; and Gary Gurwitz.

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Byron Jay Lewis, (featured bottom row, third from right), president of Edwards Abstract and Title Co. is congratulated by community leaders and staff members for earning the Feature Business of the Month award from the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce. The local chamber’s Feature Business of the Month is a program that recognizes local businesses and investors monthly for contributing financial resources, support of the Program of Work and participation in the many events offered throughout the year. “We are honored to receive this recognition from the board of directors, Chamber Champions and staff,” said Lewis. “The chamber volunteers and staff, city leaders, business community and citizens of Edinburg have played a role in the continued success of Edwards Abstract and Title Co. and we want to say ‘thank you’. We look forward to serving you for years to come.” Included in this portrait, taken at the company’s corporate headquarters in Edinburg, are Letty González, (bottom row, fifth from right), the president of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce, and Lee Castro, (bottom row, second from right), the chairman-elect of the local chamber.  See related story later in this posting.

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Edinburg school board candidates draw ballot spots; Gilbert Enríquez campaign kick-off set for Thursday

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

The five candidates in the Tuesday, November 4 election for two spots on the Edinburg school board drew ballot spots on Tuesday, September 2, ECISD officials have announced.

The terms for both spots are four years.

Incumbent Carmen González drew the top billing in her race against a Gilbert Enríquez, a former ECISD board member who did not run for reelection in May 2005. They are candidates for Place 6 on the seven-member ECISD board of trustees.

González is seeking her second term on the school board; Enríquez served several terms before leaving public service – at least temporarily.

Enríquez is scheduled to officially launch his election bid with a major campaign kick-off on Thursday, September 11, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at his business, Enríquez Enterprises, Inc., located at

3025 South Sugar Road. The rally is free and open to the public.

On Thursday, August 21, González hosted her campaign kick-off before a full house in the Hidalgo Room, which is the main ballroom at the ECHO Hotel and Conference Center.

Drawing the top ballot spot in the Place 7 race was Carlos Ramos, a former member of the Edinburg school district police force. That seat is currently held by Ciro Treviño, longtime Hidalgo County Tax Assessor-Collector, who is seeking his second term.

Treviño drew the second spot on the ballot.

Roger C. Bunch, a teacher at the Edinburg Alternative Education Academy, will be listed third on the ballot in the Place 7 race.

According to ECISD officials, Dr. Jacques Treviño, the school board attorney, has opined that Bunch can run for school board but would have to resign if elected.

No public announcements have yet been made by any of the three candidates for Place 7 regarding plans for public campaign kick-offs.

Early voting by personal appearance begins Monday, October 20 and runs through Friday, October 31. There will be early weekend voting on Saturday, October 25 and Sunday, October 26.

Gilbert Tagle contributed to this article.

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Statewide fundraising website created to help Democrats, including Rep. Gonzáles in battle against Javier Villalobos, to regain control of Texas House

By RICARDO LÓPEZ-GUERRA

Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, is one of 24 Democrats “adopted” by a new fundraising website aimed at turning the Texas House of Representatives “blue” on Tuesday, November 4.

Gonzáles, a McAllen attorney who is seeking her third two-year term, is being challenged by fellow attorney Javier Villalobos, the Republican Party nominee, in the upcoming general election.

They are both seeking the House 41 legislative district, which includes southwest Edinburg.

“Blue” is the color used by political observers and pundits to describe a governing body controlled by Democrats; “red” is the color to describe a governing body controlled by Republicans.

Sen. Kirk Watson D- Austin, launched the Adopt a House Candidate website featuring Democrats running in races throughout Texas as challengers, incumbents and in open seats. Watson, a former Austin mayor, is asking donors to pledge $20.08, in honor of the election year. He promised to match each donation up to a total of $5,000.

By keeping the incumbent Democrats in office and adding five more blue seats to the House, Democrats will become the majority party for the first time since 2002 – when Republicans redrew the state’s House districts to favor their party.

The incumbent, Speaker of the House Tom Craddick, R-Midland, is seeking reelection. Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, is the only Democrat so far who has filed paperwork seeking the office of Speaker of the House.

In early January every two years, when the Legislature returns to work at the Capitol, the 150-member House of Representatives votes for the Speaker of the House. The Speaker of the House needs 76 votes to attain, or keep, that position.

The Speaker of the House controls the fate of all major legislation considered by the House of Representatives.  Along with the Governor and Lt. Governor, the Speaker of the House is one of the three most powerful legislative posts in Texas.

Watson recognizes the importance of turning the state’s leadership in a new direction by electing a Democratic majority in the House, Gonzáles said.

“I’m proud to have the support of Sen. Watson. The Adopt a House Candidate website is indicative to the ideals and unity of the Texas Democratic party,” Gonzáles said. “Sen. Watson’s efforts show he is putting his money where his mouth is, and helping our party win back the House majority.”

To see the candidates up for “adoption,” visit http://www.adoptahousecandidate.com. The site includes links to the candidate’s website, and information on how to make a donation. Watson will only match contributions of $20.08. To learn more about Gonzáles or to donate to her campaign, go to http://www.veronicagonzales.com, or call her campaign office at (956) 664-0024.

Villalobos also maintains a campaign website – http://www.votevillalobos.com.

His campaign headquarters is located at 5804 N. 23rd Street in McAllen, and he may be reached at (956) 687-4000

David A. Díaz contributed to this article.

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ECISD approved for almost $7.2 million in state IFA funds to help repay debt from May bond election

By GILBERT TAGLE

The Texas Education Agency has notified the Edinburg Consolidated ISD that the district’s application for Instructional Facilities Allotment (IFA)monies has been approved for the 2008-2009 school year, announced Rigoberto Abrego, assistant superintendent for Finance and Operations.

The approved monies will help to reduce the yearly burden on the district’s taxpayers to repay the $111,920,000 in schoolhouse bonds overwhelmingly approved by voters last May. The first payment of $7,194,569 comes due in mid-February 2009. Based on the approved IFA funding, local taxpayers will only bear 48.5 percent of the tax repayment with the state picking up 51.5 percent.

Abrego said, “Through the IFA program, the district will receive state support of $3,705,203 to make the first payment. The local taxpayers’ share of the first payment will be $3,489,366.”

Abrego said that the IFA program, which was enacted by House Bill 1 of the 75th Texas Legislature, provides funding to school districts for the purchase, construction, renovation, and expansion of instructional facilities. A district uses the IFA funding to make debt service payments on qualifying bonds. To receive IFA program assistance, a district must apply for funding to the Texas Education Agency, said Abrego.

The amount of IFA program assistance for a district qualifies for is based on the size of the district, its property values, the numbers of students in average daily attendance (ADA), and the amount of eligible annual debt service, said Abrego. The district must levy and collect sufficient taxes to cover the local share of the IFA allotment to the district, he said.

Abrego said the ECISD has been assigned a “AAA” rating by Fitch Ratings for the sale of the $111,920,000 in bonds which is set for Sept. 3-Oct. 6th. Fitch Ratings, Ltd. is an international  credit rating agency dual-headquartered in New York City and London.

A Citizens Bond Oversight Committee, which studied the district’s facility needs for six months, recommended a bond election to the school board.

An overwhelming show of community support to build new schools and school facilities was seen on May 10 as a $111,920,000 schoolhouse bond issue was passed.  The measure authorized the school district to:

  • Build four new elementary schools;
  • Build two new middle schools;
  • Convert the present Harwell Middle School into a fourth middle school;
  • Build of three multi-purpose fine arts centers at each of the three existing high schools;
  • Make additions and renovations at Brewster School; and
  • To purchase land to build the new schools.

The voters also voted to support the conversion of $37,675,000 of 1998 Leased Purchase Bonds to 2008 voter authorized IFA supported bonds to reduce the tax rate by $0.0020 and save taxpayers $2.1 million over 12 years.

Committee members Dr. Frank Guajardo, Bryant Morrison, and Norma Zamora Guerra, on behalf of the whole committee, recently congratulated the school board and the community on the awarding of IFA funding to help ease the burden on local taxpayers.

“We want to assure the community that our committee intends to see these bond projects all the way through completion. We will be watching and working with administrative staff and the board to ensure that the construction projects are carried through and the goals are met,” they pledged in a joint statement.

Abrego said that school taxes for senior citizens age 65 or older with approved resident homestead exemptions are frozen and seniors will not pay the additional taxes on their homestead because of the bonds unless they have made property improvements to their homes. The Hidalgo County Appraisal District, not the school district, determines property values based on property improvements, said Abrego.

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In giving ECISD positive bond rating, Fitch analysis provides detailed insight into local economy

Fitch Ratings has assigned an ‘A’ rating to the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District, Texas (the district) $37.7 million unlimited tax school building bonds, series 2008A (the bonds), scheduled to be sold via negotiation on or about July 9. In addition, Fitch affirms the underlying ‘A’ rating on the district’s $86.3 million unlimited tax bonds outstanding and $22.4 million of maintenance tax notes outstanding series 2001, 2002, and 2003. The Rating Outlook on all debt is revised to Positive.

“A strong credit rating such as the one assigned to the Edinburg CISD bonds means that when the district issues the bonds, the cost of borrowing is lowered, thus saving taxpayer dollars to repay the debt,” said Rigoberto Abrego, ECISD’s assistant superintendent for Finance and Operations.

Abrego.

The bonds are direct obligations of the district, payable from a property tax levy on all taxable property located in the district. Proceeds will be used to refund the district’s outstanding lease revenue bonds, series 1998, which were utilized to construct four elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. In addition to an estimated $2.4 million in gross debt service savings, this transaction allows repayment to be made from the interest and sinking fund, thereby generating budgetary capacity for operations in the general fund.

Fitch officials said “the underlying rating reflects the district’s expanding tax base, moderate debt burden substantially supported by the state, and healthy financial condition despite enrollment growth pressures and capacity restraints.”

“The Outlook was recently revised to the Positive reflecting the service area’s expanding and diversifying economy, the district’s solid voter confidence as reflected by the recent elections results, and additional maintenance tax capacity created by refunding the district’s lease revenue bonds with voter-approved general obligation (GO) bonds,” wrote Fitch officials.

The ‘A’ underlying rating reflects the district’s expanding tax base, moderate debt burden substantially supported by the state, and healthy financial condition despite enrollment growth pressures and capacity constraints. The Outlook revision to Positive reflects the service area’s expanding and diversifying economy, the district’s solid voter confidence as reflected by the recent election results, and additional maintenance tax capacity created by refunding the district’s lease revenue bonds with voter-approved GO bonds. Continued economic expansion and an increase in general fund balance reserves, that may be facilitated through the operations budget capacity created with this refunding, may have a positive impact on the rating.

Over the last five fiscal years, the district’s financial position has been healthy and remained stable despite the pressures of ongoing growth and capital constraints stemming from the district’s lack of voter support for a prior bond program. Tight budgetary controls have been the norm for school district administrators, due to the difficulty posed by having to utilize funds from general operations to provide for capital outlays. For the fiscal year ended Aug. 31, 2007, the district recorded an operating surplus of $8.2 million, above the $7.2 million average surplus recorded in the last five fiscal years. The fiscal 2007 unreserved general fund balance was $24 million, or 10.1% of spending, slightly below the prior year. As a result of this refunding, a $5.2 million reserve that was required by the legal covenant of the lease purchase revenue bonds will be released for capital projects.

District officials expect to end the current fiscal year (2008) with an estimated $4.3 million increase to total fund balance. For fiscal 2009, financial management staff expects to recommend a $2 million to $3 million increase to the general fund reserves. With the operating capacity created by this refunding (est. at $4.5 million annually) and management’s conservative budgetary practices, Fitch believes the district is capable of increasing its fund balance reserves in the near term to a level commensurate with a higher rating.

Currently at $4.9 billion, the district’s taxable assessed value (TAV) has grown at a compound average annual rate of 11.6 percent since fiscal 2003, outpacing annual enrollment gains of three percent to four percent. In fiscal 2007, TAV jumped 20 percent in large part due to increased mineral valuations and is estimated to increase at about the same pace for next year. For fiscal 2008, the top 10 taxpayers comprise a concentrated 22 percent of the tax base, but more diverse compared with 31 percent in fiscal 2003.

Eight of the top 10 taxpayers are in the oil & gas sector, and the single largest taxpayer, Shell Western E&P, represents 8.2 percent of TAV.

The district’s debt ratios, after factoring in state support, are moderate. Repayment of district debt is better than average reflecting the district’s lack of GO issuance over the last decade due to a failed bond election. However, the district received overwhelming voter support in an election held in May 2008. More than 70 percent of district voters approved two bond propositions; one to realize the current refunding and the other to issue nearly $111.9 million in new money bonds. The district plans to return to the bond market to issue the entire authorization once it receives a commitment from the state for debt service support, expected to be received in the next few months.

Serving an estimated 133,000 residents, the district is located in fast-growing Hidalgo County, adjacent to the U.S.-Mexico border and near the southern tip of Texas. The district’s service area includes primarily the City of Edinburg (GO bonds rated ‘A+’ by Fitch), a small portion of the City of McAllen (GO bonds rated ‘AA’) and unincorporated areas of Hidalgo County (GO bonds rated ‘A’). The district economy is anchored by distribution of agricultural products and goods shipped from Mexico, as well as oil and gas exploration.

The county unemployment rate, historically in the double digits, and hovering close to 10 percent from 2000-2004, began to decline in 2005 upon passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. While the U.S. unemployment rate has increased through April 2008, Hidalgo County’s unemployment rate has improved to 5.7 percent in April 2008 (compared to 6.2 percent the prior year), but remains above the state and national levels of 3.9 percent and 5 percent, respectively. County per capita personal income lags far behind those of the state and nation at 54 percent and 48 percent, respectively.

Fitch’s rating definitions and the terms of use of such ratings are available on the agency’s public site, http://www.fitchratings.com. Published ratings, criteria and methodologies are available from this site, at all times. Fitch’s code of conduct, confidentiality, conflicts of interest, affiliate firewall, compliance and other relevant policies and procedures are also available from the ‘Code of Conduct’ section of this site.

Gilbert Tagle contributed to this article.

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July construction in Edinburg passes $7.8 million, helping push year-to-date total above $62 million

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Total construction activities in Edinburg in July 2008 was more than $7.8 million, slightly more than the same month last year, and bringing to year-to-date total to more than $62 million, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation has announced.

The EEDC is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

It’s five-member governing board, which is appointed by the Edinburg City Council, includes Mayor Joe Ochoa; former Mayor Richard García, who serves as board president; Fred Palacios; Dr. Glenn A. Martínez, Ph.D.; and Elias Longoria, Jr.

The construction figures include the value of everything from installing plumbing to building the structures, but not the price of the lots.

Also, the city figures do not include the value of any construction work being conducted at the University of Texas-Pan American.

Most valuable projects

Wal-Mart, located at 1724 W. University Drive in the Wal-Mart Subdivision, received a building permit for the most valuable construction project in July.  The work, valued at $1,742,075, was for commercial additions/repairs at its facility.

Conadat Gómez received a building permit for the second most valuable project in July – a commercial facility, valued at $895,000, located at 1901 W. Trenton Road in the Trenton Crossings Subdivision.

Héctor and Tamara Rodríguez received a building permit for the third most valuable project in July – a single-family residence, valued at $514,000, located at 3220 Lebanon Lane in the Lake James Subdivision #3 Unit 1.

Dr. Justin Cerelli received a building permit for the fourth most valuable project in July – a commercial facility, valued at $466,000, located at 214 Conquest Boulevard in the Resubdivision Sheaval subdivision.

Two building projects in July tied for the fifth most valuable construction to begin in July:  William Peisen received a building permit for work valued at $350,000 for a commercial facility – the fourth most valuable project to begin in July –  located at 203 E. Champion, in the Edinburg Original Townsite Subdivision; and

Temple Inland received a building permit, also valued at $350,000, for commercial additions/repairs at its facility, located at 1010 E. Chapin in the Tex Mex Survey Subdivision.

Year-to-date, Edinburg has reported $62,558,062 in total construction, compared with $122,934,200 from January through July 2007.

In July, total construction in Edinburg was reported at $7,863,086, compared with $7,502,286 in July 2007.

What are building permits?

The values of the construction are listed in building permits issued by the city’s Code Enforcement Division.

Building permits are permits taken out in order to allow excavation and to protect public safety.

Building permits represent the estimated cost of construction, not the selling price.

The building permits do not include the price of the lot.

A start in construction is defined as the beginning of excavation of the foundation for the building.

A building permit is permission issued by a city’s planning department to oversee and approve any changes to structures.

They are documents designed to guarantee that any construction work, from remodeling to demolition to building a new home or business facility, meets the city’s building codes.

Single-family new homes

In July 2008, building permits were issued for the construction of 19 single-family homes, valued at $2,296,000, compared with 34 single-family homes, valued at $2,946,136, during the same period in 2007.

Year-to-date, building permits have been issued for the construction of 177 new single-family residences, valued at $16,237,829, compared with 399 single-family residences, valued at $37,327,909 from January through July 2007.

Thirteen homes, each valued at $100,000 or more, were  authorized for construction in July 2008:

  • Héctor and Tamara Rodríguez, 4220 Lebanon Lane ($514,000);
  • Alvar González, 2207 Arlina ($250,000);
  • Rubén and Mylin Maso, 1905 Rochester Avenue ($212,000);
  • Ben Richardson, 3105 Salvador ($200,000);
  • Juan Carillo, 414 Mercado Drive ($168,500);
  • Enrique Chávez, 3911 Inez Street ($130,000);
  • Marcelo and Claudia García, 3818 Ida Street ($125,000);
  • Alejandro Hernández, 2108 George Street ($125,000);
  • Alejandro Hernández, 2107 George Street ($125,000);
  • Javier Carreón, 1206 International ($125,000);
  • Raúl González, 701 Larry Twayne ($125,000);
  • Jesús González, 2723 April Avenue ($107,00); and
  • Ricardo M. Gutiérrez, 1019 Berkley ($100,000).

Commercial new construction

In July 2008, the value of new commercial construction – not counting government facilities or churches – reached $2,296,000, compared with $95,000 in July 2007.

Year-to-date, new commercial construction reached $27,430,150, compared with $57,793,225 during the first seven months of 2007.

In July 2008, building permits were issued for new construction of five commercial facilities, each valued at $100,000 or more:

  • Conadat Gómez, 1901 Trenton Road ($895,000);
  • Dr. Justin Cerelli, 214 Conquest Boulevard ($466,000);
  • Joel Rodríguez, 1200 W. Monte Cristo Road ($395,000);
  • William Peisen, 203 E. Champion ($350,000); and
  • Alex Maheshwari, 2111 Jackson Creek Avenue ($125,000).

Multi-family new homes

No building permits were issued in July 2008 for multi-family homes, compared with 11 permits issued in July 2007 (10  duplexes, one complex of five or more units) for construction valued at $1,580,000.

Year-to-date, building permits have been issued for 10 new multi-family homes (all duplexes), valued at $920,000, compared with 99 new multi-family homes during the first seven months of 2007 (95 duplexes, three triplexes/fouplexes, and one complex of five or more units), valued at $9,306,500.

Residential repairs

Also in July 2008, work was authorized for alterations, valued at $421,361, on single-family residences, compared with alterations, valued at $282,850, on single-family homes in July 2007.

One building permit for residential repairs was worth $100,000 or more: Alejo Salinas, Jr. was issued a building permit for residential repairs valued at $140,000 on his home, located at 1900 W. Canton.

Year-to-date, alterations on single-family residences were valued at $2,751,266, compared with $3,406,157 between January and July 2007.

Commercial repairs

Also in July 2008, work was authorized for alterations, valued at $2,497,725, on commercial structures, compared with alterations, valued at $344,300, on commercial structures in July 2007.

In addition to the commercial alterations/repairs at Wal-Mart, valued at more than $1.7 million, two other projects in this category were each worth $100,000 or more: Temple Inland received a permit for additions/repairs valued at $350,000, while Dr. Ed Carillo was issued a permit for additions/repairs, valued at $200,000, at a facility located at 1901 E. Monte Cristo Road.

Year-to-date, repairs/alterations on commercial structures total $5,346,446, compared with $2,507,929 from January through July 2007.

Non-taxable structures

There were building permits issued for work valued at $33,500 for alterations/repairs on non-taxable structures in July 2008, compared with $2,254,000 in July 2007.

Year-to-date, building permits for work valued at $9,872,371 were issued for repairs/alterations on non-taxable structures, compared with $12,501,500 during the first seven months of 2007.

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15th anniversary of the creation of South Texas College to honor Sen. Lucio, former Rep. Gutiérrez, raise scholarship funds during October 7 event

By HELEN J. ESCOBAR

South Texas College’s Valley Scholars Program, a scholarship program supporting academically gifted students, is celebrating the college’s 15th anniversary at its third annual A Night with the Stars fundraiser on Tuesday, October 7, at the Cimarron Country Club in Mission.

The special event will honor Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, and former Rep. Roberto Gutiérrez, D-McAllen, for their support of STC from its creation by the Texas Legislature in 1993.

Lucio was the Senate author of the legislation that converted the then-Texas State Technical College branch campus into South Texas Community College.  Gutiérrez was the House sponsor of that measure.

“I have been privileged to be part of the creation and evolution of STC and am truly humbled to be honored for my work,” said Gutiérrez. “STC was created to give students an opportunity for a better life and the Valley Scholars Program is giving a special boost to very bright students who may not have otherwise been able to afford college. I look forward to the celebration, but more than anything I hope hundreds of folks will turn out to support this great cause!”

The festivities begin at 6:30 p.m. and include entertainment, a recognition dinner and prize giveaway.

All proceeds from the event will benefit future STC Valley Scholars Program students. STC’s valley scholars rank in the top 10 percent of their high school class, show exceptional leadership skills and are active in community service projects. They maintain high academic and social standards during their time at STC and go on to earn an associate’s degree. More than 98 percent of program graduates go on to transfer to a four-year university or college.

“We are helping to celebrate our college’s 15th anniversary this year by honoring two outstanding supporters who have helped make STC one of the best community colleges in the nation,” said program coordinator Marie Olivarez. “We invite people from across the Valley to help us honor Sen. Lucio and former Rep. Gutiérrez for their commitment to our students and raise money for a very worthy cause.”

For additional information about the event, to become a sponsor or to purchase tickets visit http://www.southtexascollege.edu/nightwithstars or call 956-872-2621.

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Congressman Hinojosa announces $651,200 grant that includes Edinburg in regional radio project

By ELIZABETH ESFAHANI

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Wednesday, September 3,  announced that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has awarded the City of McAllen Fire Department a grant in the amount of $651,200 under the Assistance to Firefighter Grants (AFG) program. This year, the City of McAllen applied as the lead applicant for a regional radio project with its collaborative partners: the cities of Edinburg, San Manuel-Linn, Mission and Pharr.

“After the area suffered from wild land fires this year in the northern Hidalgo County area, we found that our firefighters in the surrounding area quickly needed to be equipped with an advance operable radio technology. I commend these cities for collaborating and coming together to apply for this grant.” said Hinojosa. “It will enhance our first responders’ capabilities by giving them the tools and training they need so they can better serve our communities.”

The Department of Homeland Security’s Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) program is an important component of the Administration’s larger, coordinated effort to strengthen the Nation’s overall level of preparedness and ability to respond to fire and fire related hazards. The FY 2008 AFG provides approximately $500 million in competitive grants to fire departments and nonaffiliated EMS organizations.

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First-year teachers in Edinburg to receive $40,500 annual salaries; $9,000 more than state average

By GILBERT TAGLE

The Edinburg school district will pay beginning teachers with a Bachelor’s degree $40,500 under new teacher salary schedules recently approved by the school board. announced Superintendent of Schools Gilberto Garza, Jr.

The Edinburg school board approved a $1,500 plus step increase to the salary base for all returning teachers, nurses and librarians, said Garza. Teachers with a Master’s degree will receive a $1,000 above the teacher base salary.

Garza said, “The Edinburg CISD school board is continuing to work toward providing competitive salaries to attract new and experienced teachers to come teach students in South Texas’ most progressive school district.”

“The average beginning salary for beginning teachers in Texas is $31,700,” said Garza. “In Edinburg a brand new teacher without no classroom experience will be earning almost $9,000 more than the state average salary in the 2008-2009 school year.”

“The board recognizes the value of all of its teachers and will continue to look for ways to compensate them adequately for the service they provide day-in and day-out to teach our children,” said Garza.

In addition to increasing in the teacher base pay, Garza said, all teachers are qualified to earn an additional $1,000 for perfect attendance.

Teachers will receive the perfect attendance incentive in $100 allotments for each day of personal and sick leave days they do not use during the school year, said Garza. Texas teachers receive 10 days State and Personal Absence days per school year.

“The perfect attendance teacher incentive is a win-win situation for teachers, students, and the district alike,” said Garza. “With this incentive, the district will be able to save money it pays to hire substitute teachers and at the same re-invest that money into the classroom by rewarding teachers for being in their classrooms everyday.”

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Judge Susan Criss provides history of claims filed in her court following British Petroleum disaster

Editor’s Note: According to Wikepedia, an explosion occurred at British Petroleum’s (BP) Texas City Refinery in Texas City, Texas. It is the third largest refinery in the United States and one of the largest in the world, processing 433,000 barrels (68,800 m3) of crude oil per day and accounting for three percent of that nation’s gasoline supply. Over 100 were injured, and 15 were confirmed dead, including employees of the Fluor Corporation as well as BP. BP has since accepted that its mismanagement contributed to the accident. Level indicators failed, leading to overfilling of a heater, and light hydrocarbons spread throughout the area. An unidentified ignition source set off the explosion.

Thousands of legal claims were filed by victims and their families in the 212th District Court of Judge Susan Criss, D-Galveston.  In the following letter, Criss is providing her perspectives on the final fate of those claims.

By JUDGE SUSAN CRISS

On Tuesday, September 2, we had a hearing on the last of the 4,000 plus claims arising from the BP explosion. That claim was disposed of. One claim that was dismissed is on appeal. That claimant was not in Texas when the explosion occurred. All remaining claims have been settled.

The numbers of claims moved in this case are as follows:

  • 2005: 109
  • 2006: 658
  • 2007: 1,021
  • 2008: 2,376
  • Total: 4,164

These represent total number of claims settled, not claimants.  Several claimants made both property and personal injury claims, both of which had to be resolved.  There were approximately 3,550 claimants.

During the course of this three-year, five-month litigation, I had the privilege of working with most of the best attorneys in Texas and some of the best in the nation on both sides of this case.

I am proud that the work produced in this case will result in refineries becoming safer. BP  agreed to make the documents pertaining to safety issues public as part of the settlement process. Brent Coon and his client Eva Rowe testified before Congress and the Texas Legislature encouraging passage of laws that protect the workers.

Coon and Rowe revealed what was learned in the discovery phase of this trial. As a result, Congress provided funding for OSHA to hire 100 more refinery inspectors. Rep. Craig Eiland (D-Galveston/Texas City) and Sen. Mario Gallegos (D-Houston) are now sponsoring legislation to mandate safety changes in refineries.

It is my hope that such laws are passed in the next legislative session. Some improvements have occurred without being required by law. Collective bargaining agreements now contain clauses requiring safety measures based on what was learned in discovery. Many local refineries voluntarily made some of changes needed to improve safety.

In addition to the sums of money paid to those hurt by the explosion BP, as part an agreement with Mr. Coon and Ms Rowe, paid more than $30 million to make life better for others. Donations were made to the Burns Unit of the University of Texas Medical Branch, the Texas A&M on Galveston Island Process Safety Center Program and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. A Safety Training Development Center was created at College of the Mainland. A college scholarship program was established In Hornbeck, Louisiana where Ms. Rowe’s mother taught school before working in the petrochemical industry.

We called in four jury panels and picked three juries. We spent more than four months in jury trials. We had discovery hearings set every Monday for three years. Many more hours were spent putting on testimony in settlement hearings. Millions of documents were released in the process. Depositions were held on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

I hope and pray that the resolution of this litigation results in closure for all claimants and our community.

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Edwards Abstract and Title Company honored as Feature Business of the Month by local chamber

By EVANA VLECK

Edwards Abstract and Title Company was recently recognized as Feature Business of the Month by the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce.

The local chamber’s Feature Business of the Month is a program that recognizes local businesses and investors monthly for contributing financial resources, support of the Program of Work and participation in the many events offered throughout the year.

Several civic and business leaders presented Byron Jay Lewis, president of the company, with the award.

Letty González, president of the Edinburg Chamber and Lee Castro, chairman-elect, spoke about the long standing business relationship with Edwards Abstract and Title Co., the firm’s and individual commitment to the organization, and the special people who make it all happen. Lewis served the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce as president and leader of the organization in 1993-94 and Elva Jackson Garza, public relations director for the company, served as chairman of the board of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce during 1999-2000.

Jackson Garza, who also previously served as a member of the board of directors of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation – the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council – continues to serve on the chamber’s Executive Board of Directors as Vice Chair of Membership.

In addition, Edwards Abstract and Title Co. has supported Fiesta Edinburg as corporate sponsor for more than a decade. The company is also an avid sponsor of the Public Affairs Luncheon and actively participates in many of the Chamber’s programs.

“We are honored to receive this recognition from the board of directors, Chamber Champions and staff,” said Lewis. “The chamber volunteers and staff, city leaders, business community and citizens of Edinburg have played a role in the continued success of Edwards Abstract and Title Co. and we want to say ‘thank you’. We look forward to serving you for years to come.”

“Needless to say, there are not too many businesses in the Rio Grande Valley or other parts of the Texas that can boast they have been in business as long as Edwards Abstract and Title Co. That in itself is reason enough to recognize this company as the Feature Business of the Month,”  González added. “The staff and board of directors can always count on them for support in all aspects of our operation.”

Edwards Abstract and Title Co. offers four convenient locations to serve the Rio Grande Valley.  The corporate office is located in Edinburg and branch offices are available in McAllen, Mission and Weslaco. Founded in 1880, the title insurance company is celebrating their 128th anniversary in 2008.

The Feature Business of the Month award is presented and sponsored by the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce Chamber Champions. For more information, contact the chamber at 383-4974.

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Federal district judge denies preliminary injunction request to stop construction of Border Wall in El Paso

By ELHIU DOMÍNGUEZ

El Paso County Attorney José R. Rodríguez announced on Wednesday, September 3, that U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo has denied the request for a preliminary injunction against the construction of the border fence in El Paso County.

The request was filed on June 23, 2008 by the County of El Paso, the City of El Paso, El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1, the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, Frontera Audubon Society, Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, and Mark Clark, as part of their lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security challenging Secretary Chertoff’s statutory authority to issue waivers of more than three dozen federal laws, as well as related state, local and tribal laws, to expedite the construction of a border fence in El Paso County.

The request for a preliminary injunction sought to prevent the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from constructing any fencing, walls, or other physical barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, unless and until DHS complies with the laws waived by Chertoff on April 3, 2008.

Among the reasons for denying the request, Montalvo stated that plaintiffs failed to prove that the construction of the border barriers will irreparably injure the public if the injunction was not granted.

Montalvo further found that the plaintiffs did not prove that, by allowing DHS to issue the waivers against several federal laws, the U.S. Congress was unconstitutionally delegating its legislative powers to the Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff.

Despite the order denying the request for a preliminary injunction, Montalvo did not rule on the merits of the lawsuit and the case remains pending. The attorneys representing the plaintiffs are considering various options, including a possible appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rodríguez expressed his disappointment that the preliminary injunction was not granted.

“This case is not over yet. This lawsuit involves an unprecedented delegation of authority by the Congress to the executive branch, because it allows DHS Secretary Chertoff to disregard long-standing federal laws that provide protection and benefits to the public and the environment,” Rodríguez explained.

“I expect the county’s lawyers will do everything they can to obtain a favorable ruling in the course of the litigation,” Rodríguez predicted.

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Four men, including Rogelio García, 47, of Edinburg, sentenced for illegal ammunition exportation

Noé Guadalupe Calvillo, 29, Juan Luis Hernández-Ramos, 37, and Guadalupe Ramiro Muñoz-Méndez, 34, all of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico; and Rogelio García, 47, of Edinburg, have been sentenced to varying terms in federal prison for their roles in the illegal exportation of ammunition from the U.S. to Mexico, United States Attorney Don DeGabrielle announced on Friday, September 5.

Calvillo was sentenced to 46 months, García to 39 months, Hernández-Ramos to 37 months and Muñoz-Méndez to 30 months in federal prison.

The two-count indictment alleges the unlicensed and unauthorized exportation of defense articles from the United States to Mexico. García, Hernández-Ramos and Muñoz-Méndez pleaded guilty to count one, alleging exportation of 30,900 rounds of ammunition. Calvillo pleaded guilty to count two that alleges exportation of 51,400 rounds of ammunition.

On October 2, 2007, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents received information regarding the purchase of large amounts of ammunition from several local stores. García was observed over the next two days purchasing large amounts of ammunition from several different stores and then returning to his home with the ammunition. On October 3, 2007, after making numerous ammunition purchases, García returned to his home where he met with Calvillo and transferred the ammunitions to Calvillo’s car. The ammunition was then moved to a van driven by Muñoz-Méndez from Calvillo’s residence to a location near the U.S./Mexican border. Hernández-Ramos met with  Muñoz-Méndez, who then drove his van to the outbound lanes at the United States Port of Entry.

During inspection of that vehicle, 21,340 rounds of ammunition were discovered. Hernández-Ramos was able to observe Muñoz-Méndez’ van being searched and attempted to leave the location. Hernández-Ramos was also stopped by ICE agents and a search revealed 9,560 rounds of ammunition. Muñoz-Méndez and Hernández-Ramos were taken into custody at that time, while García was arrested the following day as he attempted to enter the United States. He later admitted to the purchase and transport of approximately 50,000 or 60,000 rounds of ammunition.

On October 19, 2008, agents were again alerted to the purchase of large amounts of ammunition at local stores. Calvillo was observed meeting with the purchasers of the ammunition. A traffic stop was conducted on Calvillo, at which time he admitted his role and that he had 10,000 rounds of ammunition in his house along with an additional 10,000 rounds of ammunition in the car of yet another person had asked to purchase ammunition.

Ultimately, Calvillo was held responsible for approximately 50,000 to 80,000 rounds of ammunition, García for approximately 50,000 to 60,000 rounds of ammunition, Hernández-Ramos for approximately 9,560 rounds of ammunition and Muñoz-Méndez for approximately 21,340 rounds of ammunition.

The investigation was conducted by ICE, Customs and Border Protection and is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Steven T. Schammel.

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City of Laredo going to Austin to lay groundwork for their legislative agenda for upcoming Legislature

By XOCHITL MORA GARCÍA

The City of Laredo will be in Austin this week to present the state legislative agenda and discuss issues with the representatives that can be addressed by the state legislature.  The group departed on Sunday, September 7, in the mid-afternoon and was scheduled to have two full days of meetings, returning to Laredo late on Tuesday, September 9.

“This trip is to lay the groundwork for the issues we hope the Texas Legislature will consider in next year’s legislative session,” said Mayor Raúl G. Salinas. “It is important that our representatives understand the issues affecting the City of Laredo so that they can begin to draft legislation now.”

Aside from personal meetings with Laredo’s three state-level elected officials, including Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, and Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, city officials are also scheduled to meet with Steve McGraw, the Texas Homeland Security Director; Secretary of State Hope Andrade, and Texas Comptroller Susan Combs.

Other scheduled meetings include meeting with officials with the Texas Department of Transportation; Public Utilities Commission; Department of Health Services; Texas Parks & Wildlife; the Texas Water Development Board; and the Office of the Governor.

“I think it’s extremely important that we work on a legislative agenda early, and be prepared for the upcoming session,” said Raymond.  “I can begin filing bills on November 5, and I intend on filing several bills. Working with the City of Laredo in this manner will allow us to get a headstart on successfully promoting an agenda for Laredoans.”

Joining Salinas on the trip are: Council Member Mike Garza, District I; Council Member Héctor J. García, District II; Council Member Juan Narváez, District IV; Council Member Johnny Rendón, District V; Council Member Gene Belmares, District VI; and Council Member Cindy Liendo Espinoza, District VIII.  Other city officials include: City Manager Carlos Villarreal; Assistant City Manager Horacio De León; Assistant City Manager Jesús Olivares; Jessica L. Hein, Legislative Affairs; Keith Selman, Planning Director; Dr. Héctor González, Health Director; Fire Chief Steve Landin; and Police Chief Carlos Maldonado.

“We will take issues of importance to the City of Laredo and we hope that from our state leaders, we can learn about how realistic our issues are to becoming laws.  Our mission is to hopefully push our agenda in the next legislative session,” said City Manager Carlos Villarreal.

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Texas Transportation Commission preparing to issue $1.5 billion in bonds for key highway projects

BY CHRIS LIPPINCOTT

In a unanimous vote on Friday, August 29, the Texas Transportation Commission signaled its intent to issue $1.5 billion in Proposition 14 bonds. The debt will support development and construction projects in 2009.

The August 29 special meeting for the Transportation Commission was held in response to a letter received by Commission Chair Deirdre Delisi last week, in which Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and Speaker Tom Craddick urged the commission to exercise their ability to issue the bonds.

“The funds generated by the sale of these bonds will enable TxDOT to get needed transportation projects back on track,” said Delisi. “I have instructed TxDOT staff to begin identifying projects across the state that are ready to immediately move forward and make use of these additional funds. I expect the staff to present these projects to the Commission in September.”

In addition to encouraging the sale of bonds in their letter, the state’s leaders identified measures they would address during the 81st Legislative Session in 2009 to address long-term transportation funding. One of the proposals would appropriate money from the state’s General Fund for the Proposition 12 bonds approved by Texas voters in 2007.

Texas voters approved Proposition 14 highway bonding authority in 2003. To date, TxDOT has issued $3.1 billion in Proposition 14 bonds. The Proposition 14 bond program authorizes the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to borrow money on a short-term basis to improve cash flow and cash management and to issue general obligation bonds secured by the State Highway Fund to accelerate transportation projects. The bonds are repaid with money from State Highway Fund including motor fuels taxes and vehicle registration fees. Issuance of the bonds must be approved by the state Bond Review Board, which will meet later today.

The Texas Department of Transportation

The Texas Department of Transportation is responsible for maintaining nearly 80,000 miles of road and for supporting aviation, rail and public transportation across the state. TxDOT and its 15,000 employees strive to empower local leaders to solve local transportation problems, and to use new financial tools, including tolling and public-private partnerships, to reduce congestion and pave the way for future economic growth while enhancing safety, improving air quality and increasing the value of the state’s transportation assets. Find out more at http://www.txdot.gov.

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Lt. Gov. Dewhurst praises repeal of telephone fees originally implemented to help expand broadband and digital services in Texas

By RICH PARSONS

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst on Tuesday, September 2, praised the repeal of the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund (TIF) that will result in Texans saving hundreds of millions of dollars. The TIF tax cut will impact consumers’ September telephone bills.

“During the last legislative session, as Texas faced a multi-billion dollar budget surplus, I worked closely with members of the Texas Legislature to repeal the TIF tax and allow Texans to keep more of their hard-earned money,” said Dewhurst.

The Texas Legislature created the TIF in 1995 with the goal of expanding broadband services and improving digital communication in ever corner of the state. Since its creation, Texans have paid more than $1.5 billion into the fund through surcharges on their telephone bills, generating enough revenue to achieve the legislation’s goal of improving high-tech infrastructure and high-speed connectivity throughout Texas with an emphasis on the state’s rural areas.

In recent years, the tax has generated approximately $200 million annually.

Legislation repealing the TIF tax was passed last year by the 80th Legislature and takes effect at the beginning of the 2009 Fiscal Year on September 1st.

“High taxes hinder economic growth and opportunity. That’s why, since I was elected Lt. Governor, I’ve worked hard to cut taxes, like the TIF tax, and keep state spending growth below the rate of population growth plus inflation,” said  Dewhurst. “It should be no surprise to anyone that, as we implemented these fiscally conservative principles, Texas has become an economic powerhouse.”

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Speaker Craddick announces promotions for Alexis DeLee and Chris Cutrone in his media relations division, hires James Bernson as press secretary

Speaker of the House Tom Craddick, R-Midland, on Tuesday, September 2,  named Alexis DeLee communications director and announced the hiring of James Bernsen as press secretary. Additionally, he named Chris Cutrone media relations liaison for the House. This is part of a reorganization of the Speaker’s Press Office to better facilitate communication of the speaker’s goals and priorities.

“Alexis has been an excellent communications advisor, and I am pleased to promote her,” Craddick said. “James is also a great addition to my press office. He brings a wealth of capitol experience through his work with a key senator and a prominent house member, and he has observed the legislative process from a reporter’s perspective.”

DeLee has been with the Speaker’s Press Office since January 2005. She has more than seven years communications experience in the public and private sectors. DeLee was previously the communications director for the Republican Party of Texas. She has a bachelor’s degree from Trinity University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Colorado.

Bernsen is a former news reporter and correspondent for the Lone Star Report, a newsletter covering the Texas Capitol. He served as the deputy press secretary for U.S. Senator Phil Gramm, R-Texas, and as the campaign press secretary for U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. He has also served as a legislative aide for former Rep. Dianne White Delisi, R-Temple, and for Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls.

Cutrone joined the Speaker’s Press Office in July 2005. He previously worked in the communications division at the Texas Office of the Attorney General and on Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) first campaign for U.S. Senate. Cutrone also taught English to government officials and employees in eastern Europe. He has a bachelors degree from Quinnipiac University.

DeLee will continue to act as the primary spokesperson for the speaker, while overseeing the press office. Bernsen will write and manage the speaker’s Web site, and act as a spokesperson when necessary. Cutrone’s new responsibilities will include providing support and coordinating efforts between the Speaker’s Office and all House members for all media related matters.

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