Today the El Paso County Commissioners Court voted to post notice to issue $100 million in non-voter-approved debt. On November 17, the Court had already considered this debt issuance but postponed discussion until today in order to consider various debt instruments.


The Court voted 4-0 to fund its most urgent needs with a tax anticipation note, which has an amortization of only seven years and cannot be challenged by petition. Staff pointed out that the note would come with $19 million less in interest because of the shorter repayment schedule. On November 17, the agenda cited $20.8 million in urgent needs related to judicial facilities, but according to today’s agenda the urgent judicial needs increased to $41 million “in connection with acquiring, constructing, renovating, remodeling, enlarging, expanding and/or equipping (i) Downtown Detention Facility, Jail Annex, Juvenile Justice Center and Medical Examiner’s office; (ii) access control security technology systems across all County facilities; and (iii) paying legal, fiscal and engineering fees in connection with these projects.”


In addition, the Commissioners Court voted 3-1 on a separate item to post notice to issue a $59-million certificate of obligation to fund “Tier 1 Essential Public Infrastructure,” including improvements to County parks, courthouses, public safety facilities, streets and bridges, and expanding the County airport in Fabens. Commissioner Holguin, who generally opposes issuing COs, dissented. So the County has now joined the City in relying upon CO debt to fund non-essential projects, such as dredging Ascarate Lake. COs can be challenged by petition, much like the successful challenge to the proposed $346 million CO for the UMC.


The County Commissioners Court and staff emphasized that the two debt issuances will not increase the County tax because of the retirement of old debt. The County set as its baseline the current debt burden and would not even consider the option of lowering our debt to give the taxpayers some relief. Moreover, the County refused to consider putting general obligation bonds on the ballot rather than issuing non-voter-approved debt.


County staff replaced their presentation with a new one during their discussion, under agenda item 10. It has long been County policy to post not only the agenda, but also the backup, 72 hours before meetings but an exception was made today, even though Judge Samaniego expressed serious concern about voting on the items given this circumstance. The staff argued that the old backup and new backup were almost the same but I have copies of both and they are quite different, and I’m happy to share the two versions upon request.

All six public speakers, including myself, expressed strong opposition to issuing $100 million of non-voter-approved debt, but the County voted to post notice anyway and they will cast their final vote on the matter in January. It is a shame the County declined to give the voters a say about such a large expenditure.

In El Paso, non-voter-approved debt is the new normal.