Brownsville mayoral candidates discuss priorities: Four vie for opportunity to lead city

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With the Brownsville mayoral election just around the corner on May 6, the Brownsville Herald posed a list of questions to the four candidates appearing on the ballot in order for voters to get an idea of how each would serve in office.

What follows are the candidates’ responses, in some cases paraphrased and/or edited for length and/or clarity.

Erasmo Castro is a Brownsville native and lifelong resident who described his occupation as wedding officiant and holds a bachelor’s degree in Christian Studies from Austin Graduate School of Theology. He said his top priorities as mayor would include wiping “clean every board and committee starting with (Brownsville Public Utilities Board (BPUB), Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation (BCIC) and Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation (GBIC); they are composed of the same yes people that continue to pocket the resources that should go to Brownsville as a whole.”

He said his other priorities include returning to BPUB ratepayers millions of dollars in revenue raised through rate hikes to pay for the Tenaska power plant project, making sure nothing like Tenaska ever happens again, repairing roads and infrastructure and building more bus stop shelters and benches, “real time solutions to our drainage issues” and maintaining Gladys Porter Zoo’s accredited status.

Castro said he would carry out his priorities by ending what he alleged is a “pocketing of the resources that pay for politicos’ campaigns expecting monies to be diverted to an overpaid city manager’s office” and by discontinuing the practice of hiring consultants. In terms of opportunities and challenges facing the city, he said Brownsville is rich in natural resources but that “we have to return Brownsville to when Brownsville was Brownsville and not a cheap copy of Austin.”

Among the city’s challenges are “getting individuals to become part of the solution,” Castro said, adding, “First step: Everyone must not only come out and vote, but get everyone they know to do the same.” He said he’s the most qualified candidate for mayor because he’s “transparent, honest and true” and has been advocating for the community for a decade.

“I know my people,” Castro said. “I am in tune with their yearns, desires and needs.”

He said he’s running for mayor in response to what he alleged is “thievery going on in the city that the mayor and city commissioners took part in and let slide,” he said. Asked for his stance on SpaceX and liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants for the Port of Brownsville, Castro said that “we need SpaceX and LNG, but we don’t need a mayor and/or city commission that will bend over backwards to do their bidding. We need (and) deserve an equal sitting at the table.”

John Cowen Jr. currently serves as Brownsville city commissioner At-Large “A” and GBIC chairman. He was born and raised in Brownsville and has lived here most of his life, departing for college at age 18 but returning in 2007. He is president of Cowen Group Ltd., a licensed U.S. customs broker and holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Finance from the University of Notre Dame.

Cowen, also a member of the city’s Audit and Oversight Committee, said that among his top priorities as mayor would be seeing through “to completion or stabilization” projects he’s already begun, such as restoring public trust in BPUB following the release of a highly critical Tenaska audit, creation of GBIC’s 729-acre industrial park on FM 511, and the implementation of a zoo master plan “to expand and enhance our most prominent tourist attraction, which is at risk of losing its accreditation if we do not move forward with the plan.”

“All these items will substantially impact our fiscal performance, allowing us to provide more resources to fund deficits in our infrastructure, public safety and quality-of-life programs,” he said.

Cowen said he would improve BPUB by eliminating wasteful spending through the budget process, “eliminate unnecessary fees and work to ensure the lowest possible utility rate.” As mayor, he would automatically become BPUB’s ex-officio voting member representing the city commission and would ensure efficiency in the budget as well as eliminate wasteful spending, he said.

“Running a more efficient and cost-effective utility will lower bills for ratepayers,” Cowen said. “Several factors affect the PUB rates for electric, water and wastewater services. Careful planning and smart contracts to lock in low long-term costs should reduce utility bills and prevent the significant spikes on your bill that we experienced last year. I am the only candidate for mayor with the education and business experience to evaluate contracts and effectively reduce costs.”

Since BPUB is a nonprofit entity without private shareholders, the publicly owned utility “is in the best position to provide the lowest rates to our community if managed properly,” he said. On the FM 511 Industrial Park, GBIC is working with a developer on a multi-phase, master-planned industrial development with a commercial and hotel component that will help address Brownsville’s current lack of industrial space, Cowen said.

“Now is the time to get this done, with manufacturing coming back from Asia to our region and the significant momentum occurring at (the port) and SpaceX,” he said.

Seeing the zoo master plan through, meanwhile, will require working with the Brownsville Independent School District (BISD) and Cameron County while seeking public and private grants to help implement the plan, Cowen said.

In terms of opportunities, Brownsville is the only city in the region with the combination of a historic downtown, international bridges and rail, new airport terminal, extensive trail network, tourism and cultural heritage, right on the border and near South Padre Island, he said. The city’s growing skilled workforce will continue to attract businesses of all sizes, while Brownsville itself is only 50 percent developed, Cowen said.

“We have an opportunity to grow strategically to ensure a high quality of life for future generations,” he said.

As for challenges facing the city, the high-growth environment puts upward pressure on the cost of wages, materials and equipment, which necessitates finding ways to do more with less, Cowen said. In addition, the increasing demand for houses and apartment units has created an even more urgent need for affordable housing, he said.

Cowen said he’s the best choice for mayor because he’s the only candidate with the “business experience, education and commitment to community service to move our city forward effectively,” he said.

“I also believe in having a solid teamwork approach to accomplishing our goals,” Cowen said. “As a community, we no longer should tolerate small-town politics in our local government.”

He said serving as city commissioner has been “the most incredible honor in my life” and that he’s running for mayor to serve the city at a higher level. Cowen said its important the next mayor lead with integrity, transparency and an economic-development mindset, while prioritizing fiscal oversight “to ensure that we have the funds necessary to improve all facets of the services that we provide to the community and continue to increase our quality of life.”

He said projects like SpaceX and LNG are economic opportunities that will help many area families “break the cycle of poverty,” and that such large private investments have a substantial multiplier effect on the local economy and will help spawn more commercial and industrial growth.

“I understand and appreciate the concern regarding the impact on our environment,” Cowen said. “It should be stressed that these projects must go through an in-depth environmental review at the local, state, and federal levels to ensure compliance and mitigation of any environmental impact.”

Jennifer Stanton is a Corpus Christi native, 16-year resident of Brownsville and cleaning-business owner. She said her priorities as mayor would be a balanced budget and “to start fixing basic things that the current administration has been ignoring.” Those priorities would include synchronizing traffic signals, repair and clean-up of streets and roads, additional spay-and-neuter clinics, no-kill animal shelters, the zoo, shade and seating at public transit stops, permitting, and addressing what she called the city’s housing crisis.

“I would also like to work closely with the ethics and audit committee and commission to weed out corruption,” she said.

Stanton said she would carry out her priorities “by working with my team to find solutions and create ideas, look at where money is being wasted and allocate it into the right places.” While growth is the city’s biggest opportunity, the biggest challenge the city faces, she alleged, is “the current administration mishandling millions of dollars that should be working to help the citizens instead have been funneling to special interest groups.”

Stanton described herself as the most qualified candidate because she has worked hard since age 15 and managed a Harley-Davidson store for five years, a job that entailed reporting, inventory and warranty management, buying and scheduling. Also, Stanton has owned and run two businesses in Brownsville over the past nine years and been involved in buying, upgrading and selling properties over the past two years, she said, adding that she can “balance a budget and allocate funds to places we really need in our city.”

Stanton said she’s running for mayor “because I saw how corrupt our current administration is and I know I will be an ethical, honest mayor with no friend system and no special interests.”

On LNG and SpaceX, she said they’re “great as long as they respect contracts about (beach) closures” or renegotiate those contracts.

“I would also like for them to give our residents the first priority for employment instead of outsourcing people,” Stanton said.

Jessica Tetreau was born and raised in Brownsville and has lived in the city all her life. She currently serves as city commissioner for District 2 and is a small-business owner whose ventures include retail, e-commerce and Car Wash Plus.

Tetreau said that as mayor she would prioritize “street paving and drainage improvements, investing in our public safety officers, creating a same-day inspection and permitting system, creating high-paying quality jobs, implementing a citywide recycling program, bringing better and more competitive retail, dining and entertainment options, (and) building quality and affordable homes and subdivisions.”

She would also prioritize lowering property taxes and holding BPUB accountable to ensure the lowest utility rates possible, Tetreau said, adding that carrying out her priorities will require finding qualified people to lead the city’s economic-development boards and efforts.

“For many years, we have lacked success and lost out on major investment and revenue because we have had city commissioners serving on (GBIC) who have self interest and political conflicts, which have stunted our proper growth,” Tetreau said.

It’s necessary to attract industrial and commercial growth to bolster the tax base and reduce the city’s “high tax burden/minimal service return,” she said, adding that a “nearly impossible permitting process” is one of the city’s greatest flaws.

“We have lost countless sales and property tax revenue from builders, contractors and investors who ultimately choose to build in other cities because of our flawed and wasteful process,” Tetreau said.

Speeding up the process will foster new growth, strengthen revenues and lower property taxes, she said. Brownsville’s greatest strength is its “tremendous potential” thanks to its location on the border, its university, airport and aerospace campus, deepwater port, nearness to Gulf beaches and, especially, “our beautiful city and culture,” Tetreau said.

As for challenges, she said, we must overcome the current self interest dealings and improve our quality of service that we … provide to our community. The city has missed out on “countless revenue” due to “self-conflicted leadership,” Tetreau said, adding that “awarding incentives to the same people over and over” must stop.

“Make our incentive systems fair and available to everyone,” she said. “We must empower and help everyone from our small mom-and-pop businesses to our large corporate employers succeed in Brownsville.”

Tetreau said she’s the most qualified candidate for mayor due to her success as a local business owner and mother of three, her education though BISD and the University of Texas at Brownsville, her public service including 12 years on the city commission, and her “immense and unconditional love for the city.”

“My record of strong leadership (on) successful projects, dedication and loyalty to the people of our city and making sure they always come first is what makes me the most qualified individual in the mayoral race,” she said.

Tetreau said she decided to run for mayor because she feels she’s the most qualified, because of how much she loves Brownsville and its people, and because she feels deeply “that more women and mothers deserve to lead and have a say in how our cities are built and governments are run.”

She said she’s been a supporter of SpaceX from day one, noting that the company has created over 1,700 jobs, more than 70 percent of them filled by local residents.

“Not only has SpaceX created high-paying wages for countless families in Brownsville, but they have created hope and inspiration for a better future throughout our community and schools,” Tetreau said. “The arrival of SpaceX has also empowered us on a global level.”

At the same time, it’s important to be mindful of “environmental dangers” related to rocket production and launches, she said.

“My support of LNG is more complicated,” Tetreau said. “While I do support the creation of jobs, I have serious concerns about how our local environment would be impacted.”

Early voting begins on April 24 and ends May 2. Election Day is May 6.

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