SEPTEMBER 23, 2016
THE PORT ISABEL PRESS
With those two simple words uttered by Point Isabel School Board of Trustees President Cecilia Castillo, half of the standing-room-only crowd erupted into cheers. With those two words, it was official: the school board had, by a 5-2 vote, rejected Rio Grande LNG’s request to file a conditional Chapter 313 tax abatement agreement application with the State Comptroller’s Office.
But before the Board’s vote could be tallied, tensions within the chamber were high. Proponents and opponents of the LNG project had gathered at the district’s administrative headquarters more than an hour before Tuesday’s regular meeting was scheduled to begin. Many carried signs or wore clothing with slogans in support of or against the project.
“Shred it” read some anti-LNG signs, in reference to the application proposal. “Adelante” read some of those in favor of the project. Counting down the minutes until the meeting began, people held their signs up in the air while others took photos.
It was once the meeting was underway, when Castillo read the public comment policy aloud, that tempers began to flare. In a similar meeting held last year to discuss a Chapter 313 agreement proposed by Annova LNG, the Board allowed everyone who signed up to comment a chance to speak. With five minutes allotted per person, the meeting stretched on for hours. At a meeting last month, where the Board met with Rio Grande LNG representatives in executive session, public comments were limited to one representative for every five people who signed up to speak on each side of the issue.
With that guideline in mind, both sides came prepared to create as many opportunities for comments to be heard as possible. A total of 34 people signed up to speak against LNG while another 21 signed up to speak in favor of the project.
Castillo read the Board’s public comment policy, specifying that only one speaker per side would be allowed to speak. Opponents of LNG quickly objected, demanding to be heard at the previous one speaker per five people guideline. “It is a big issue. We know that, we understand that,” Castillo said.
Commenting first was Ramona Alcantara, a local attorney, who said she wasn’t commenting in favor or against the proposed LNG export terminal, but rather, in favor of the tax abatement proposal. “We’re here to decide whether this school board is going to take advantage of an opportunity to keep the dollars associated with the LNG development, if it comes, in our school district in way that cannot be taken away from us.” She said.
Alcantara referenced the State’s Robin Hood school funding program, which requires so-called ‘property rich’ school districts remit a portion of their property taxes each year to be redistributed to poorer school districts. Despite the majority of its students coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, Point Isabel ISD qualifies as a property rich district and returns some $16 million to the State each year.
“I am asking the school board to focus on what’s being decided tonight… so we’re poised to get those dollars here, and this school district desperately needs dollars,” Alcantara said.
When she was done, the board president announced that a pro-LNG speaker would be allowed to comment since Alcatara’s comments were in regards to the tax abatement proposal specifically, and not necessarily LNG. Castillo also allowed those against LNG to divide their allotted five minutes between two speakers Kerry Schwartz and Bill Best.
Schwartz, a business owner on South Padre Island and president of the South Padre Island Business Owners Association, spoke of preparedness concerns in the event of an industrial accident was to occur at the proposed facilities. “If an event does occur, is our school board prepared to have an emergency evacuation plan?” he asked. “If an event happens causing an evacuation, how are we going to address that?”
“Our children are more important than anything else, whether it’s oil, LNG, any kind of hazardous material that’s handled near a populated area.” Schwartz said.
Bill Best shared his concerns over the proposed terminal’s emissions. “These plants produce toxic emissions, even by their own standards,” he said.
He continued, saying the facility would emit 800 tons of particulate matter each year, a number later disputed by the company’s manager of communications, James Markham-Hill.
It was Markham-Hill who spoke next in favor of LNG, urging the board to approve the conditional agreement. “If our project does not move forward, these won’t be any new tax dollars anyway; if it does, it makes sense that you be able to take advantage of them,” he said. He continued to, saying that numerous federal, state, and local agencies have oversight of the project to ensure its safety.
With public comments concluded, Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Lisa Garcia, explained exactly what was up for consideration. At stake was a conditional agreement that would be filed for review with the State’s Comptroller’s office, she said. “the conditional approval of the application allows public access to the application,” Garcia said.
The review process could take anywhere from three to six months, she explained. If the comptroller recommended the agreement, the proposal would then come back before the board for final approval or rejection, but not before public hearings could be held, she said.
“The public gets to read the agreement in its entirety, analyze that however they choose to. The application requires the company to disclose information publicly that, up until now, they’ve not had to disclose publicly,” she said.
“In efforts of transparency, to provide as much information as possible, the recommendation is that we approve the conditional filing of a Chapter 313 with the comptroller,” Garcia said.
Several board members had questions. Trustee Bertha Zamora asked if the application would go forward without transparency if the board decide to reject the conditional application. Garcia responded that the application would not be filed at all in that case.
“So it stops there?” Zamora asked.
Garcia affirmed yes, while members of the crowd exclaimed, “Stop it?”
The crowd began to clamor again as Board President Cecilia Castillo called for a motion on the agenda item. Trustee Mickey Fucron motioned to approve the application, seconded by Trustee Diane O’Leary. “ I think we need to look at it,” O’Leary said.
Castillo polled the trustees. Fucron and O’Leary voted on favor. Trustees Jennifer Pinkerton, Bertha Zamora, Alicia Baldovinos, Jimmy Vela, and Castillo herself voted against it.
“I think it’s disappointing. I think the school district will lose out significantly … on a lot of benefits that they would have otherwise received should the project move forward,” Markham-Hill said afterwards.
“I think what this highlighted was that there’s a clear misunderstanding of much of LNG, about this industry, about this project. I encourage people to ask questions, to reach out to us,” he said.
For the opponents of the projects, the vote as a moment to celebrate. “I am so glad; it seemed so close. I’m elated and I’m so proud of the people that spoke,” said Rancho Viejo resident Alma Leal.
Speaking after the meeting, Bertha Zamora explained how her question solidified her vote. “I know where I stand pertaining to LNG,” she said. “I do not like big corporations to get the big tax breaks when the average person has to pay 100 percent.”
Though he declined to say just how a big a tax break the agreement would have been worth, Markham-Hill said the amount was significant. Annova LNG’s proposed 2015 application was worth an estimated $3 million. “It would be worth many millions of dollars,” MarkhamHill said.
“To me, the money wasn’t everything,” Castillo said after the meeting. “I don’t think it would solve a lot of our issues.”
Chapter 313, also called the Texas Economic Act, was created in 2001 to allow taxing entities to incentivize companies to build and staff their facilities within Texas. According to a report published by the Texas Tribune in March of this year, the State Comptroller’s office has approved all but seven of the 337 applications it has received since 2010. Of those which were not approved, four reapplied and were approved, the Tribune reports.
Chapter 313 applications are rarely turned down by taxing entities themselves. Now the school board has done so twice.
For Castillo, the board’s decision just illustrates its commitment to the community it serves. “We care, and we listen to our taxpayers and our resident,” she said. “This is our life here, and we want to consider that first. We want people to come here and enjoy themselves, and just love what we have here, because we truly have a jewel here.”
– Dina Arevalo