Christopher Maher, Alice Echo-News Journal

On May 12, Alice voters will be asked to approve a $9.6 million bond to improve the city's water and wastewater infrastructure and at the same time vote themselves a $7 a month increase in utilities and about a one-cent hike on their tax rate.

A City of Alice Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Study presented to the council last year indicated some portions of the city's existing system of underground pipes are approaching 80 years in age, and many of those pipes are made from materials, such as galvanized steel and clay, that are no longer used in underground systems.

That study also indicated there are about 38 miles of two-inch galvanized steel lines in the city, a diameter of pipe no longer recommended for use in large scale operations.

According to the study, "These lines are the major contributors to rusty water, low pressure and leak frequency in the system."

Another focus of the study was the presence of a primary "trunk line," a 24-inch diameter pipeline from which all lines in the city are fed, running the length of Texas Boulevard.

City engineers hope to relocate that main line and other small lines from beneath Texas Boulevard and place them to the side of the roadway.

Interim City Manager Ruben Maldonado said recently city officials had been in communication with the Texas Department of Transportation, and hoped TxDOT would accept Texas Boulevard as an "on-system-roadway" once the lines were removed.

"The big project, as far as the bond election is concerned, is to move the water and wastewater lines out from underneath Texas Boulevard," Maldonado said. "If we move them off to the side, we can then petition TxDOT to take over the maintenance of Texas Blvd."

The bond money would also allow the city to install a second main line as a back-up to the line currently running beneath Texas Boulevard, Maldonado said, to provide an alternative in case of an emergency. Although the item voters will consider May 12 is for a $9.6 million bond, that amount was not the city council's original choice.

On Feb. 20, following a lengthy discussion, the Alice City Council unanimously approved a call for a $20 million bond to repair the city's water and wastewater infrastructure. In an interview shortly after that vote, Alice Mayor Grace Saenz-Lopez defended the decision to call for a $20 million bond.

"We started out with $9.6 million, and that was not even going to cover our water and wastewater," Saenz-Lopez said. "We would be starting out $2 million short."

Less than three weeks later, on March 12, in a split vote the council reversed its Feb. 20 vote and lowered the bond to the $9.6 million that will be on the May 12 ballot.

Saenz-Lopez, council member Michael Esparza and mayor pro-tem Juan Rodriguez Jr. voted to reduce the amount, citing concerns that the $20 million bond would not be approved by voters. Council members Rey Garcia and Dorella Elizondo voted against reducing the bond.

"If this council is not here in three to five years, there's no guarantee the next council will seek a bond for the next phase," Elizondo said. "This way, we know it will be completed, and not done with just a patchwork job."

Before casting her vote in favor of reducing the bond to $9.6 million, Saenz-Lopez said she had spoken with several members of the community and had received the impression the $20 million bond would not be approved by voters.

"I feel like my back is against the wall," Saenz-Lopez said. "I don't want to miss out on the chance to get something started. I don't want to chance losing it all."

Maldonado agreed the $9.6 million would be just the first bond election the city would call to repair the infrastructure, and would probably only provide enough materials and labor for between three and four years of work.

"It's going to take more than $9.6 million to fix all the water and wastewater lines for the city of Alice," Maldonado said. "But we felt that to have less of an impact on our taxpayers, we needed to do it in phases."

According to an estimate provided by the city, the $9.6 million bond would be broken down in the following manner. The city has been divided into four quadrants, with the northwest quadrant receiving $2.10 million, the northeast quadrant $1.2 million, the southeast quadrant $210,000 and the southwest quadrant $1.52 million.

The bond would also provide $870,000 for the back-up water line, $1.6 million for the Texas Boulevard water line and $2.10 million for the Texas Boulevard wastewater line.

The summary provided by the study to the city notes that the city council previously expressed an interest in repaying the bond from 80 percent utility revenues and 20 percent from ad valorem taxes. Under that scenario, the city could expect an increase of 10 percent in utility rates for fiscal year 2008, resulting in a $7 per month increase in utility rates for the average Alice household. The result of the 20 percent funding from ad valorem taxes would be an increase of less than one cent for 2008.

Maldonado said he hoped the voters would approve the bond on May 12.

"I think this is going to greatly improved the infrastructure of Alice, which has needed to be repaired for many years," Maldonado said. "Everybody is going to get some relief."