District 3 voters choosing a City Council member for second time in a year
It was only a year ago that voters went to the polls to decide whether District 3 city Rep. Cassandra Hernandez should keep her seat. A post on Hernandez’s official Facebook page suggesting she was running for mayor — which Hernandez maintains a former campaign volunteer posted without her knowledge — triggered the state’s resign-to-run rule, the city’s outside legal counsel determined.
Veliz, 26, a Realtor and owner of real estate investment and holding companies, is again vying to unseat Hernandez in her bid for a second term representing the East-Central district. Jose Rodriguez, 74, a longtime Realtor and first-time candidate, also is running for the seat.
The thought of launching a second campaign in a year’s time was daunting, Hernandez, 33, said, crediting her constituents with encouraging her reelection bid.
“I feel a strong obligation to continue the work that we have done especially since they have given me a second chance by reelecting me in December,” Hernandez said.
She has outraised Veliz, bringing in nearly $30,000 in campaign contributions since July. Veliz has raised about $10,000, according to his Oct. 5 campaign finance report. Rodriguez did not file a report and said he has not raised any money.
Here’s how the candidates stand on some of the key issues facing El Paso and District 3.
Want to learn more about candidates in the Nov. 3 election? Be sure to check out our voters guide.
Veliz has made Hernandez’s record of supporting property tax increases a central part of his campaign.
“She’s never skipped a vote to raise taxes, but when you look at our tax bill and what’s going on in the district, it just doesn’t add up,” Veliz said. “There’s not a lot being done in the district where it comes to streets, where it comes to the efficiency of streetlights, of walkways, of bike paths … to curb flooding in a lot of areas south of the freeway (Interstate 10).”
Hernandez voted in favor of the fiscal 2018, 2019 and 2020 budgets, which raised the city’s tax rate above the effective tax rate, which state law says constitutes a tax increase. The El Paso City Council adopted those budgets with the majority of council’s approval.
Raising property taxes to fund quality of life and infrastructure investment is necessary to attract new businesses and jobs to El Paso, Hernandez said. Tax increases are also due to municipal bond projects voters approved, such as 2019’s $413 million Public Safety Bond, she said.
“If I were to vote no on increasing the taxes, it would mean that I would have to eat into other budgets so that we can account for these voter approved initiatives,” Hernandez said. Because the majority of the city budget covers salaries, cuts are akin to “slashing El Pasoans who rely on those positions and El Pasoans who rely on those services,” she said.
This fiscal year, faced with decreased revenues, council adopted a budget that was $62 million less than the previous year and included cuts to nearly every department budget.
Were El Paso to be faced with another budget shortfall next year, Veliz said he would use discretionary funds, state and federal grants and public-private partnerships to ensure residents’ priorities are funded without raising taxes. Each city representative receives $10,000 annually in discretionary funds.
“I would take a fine-tooth comb to the budget,” Veliz said. “… for a large part of it, it’s using the funds that are already there to further fund the programs that we have without even touching the tax base.”
Rodriguez said he would vote against future budgets that would raise the effective tax rate.
Increasing the city’s commercial tax base is needed to reduce the tax burden on homeowners, Hernandez and Veliz said.
The three candidates support using local tax incentives to entice companies to relocate to El Paso, though all said City Council should use more discretion when granting tax breaks.
Incentives should be “tiered-based (and) reward-based and we expand it over years rather than just all up front,” Veliz said. Council should consider the number of jobs a company would create each year over the course of the agreement, in addition to how employee salaries would change over that time, he said.
Hernandez said incentives should be used for companies with clear plans to create career paths for their El Paso hires.
Council should weigh a company’s environmental impact on El Paso, Rodriguez said.
Despite unemployment rates declining before the pandemic, El Paso’s wages have lagged behind the national average for years. As a result, many families have moved away from El Paso in search of higher wages.
Creating higher-pay jobs requires investment in suppliers, Hernandez said. “It has to start at the supply chain level so that we can grow into these massive operational centers,” she said.
She wants to see the city resume the familiarization tours former Mayor Oscar Leeser started to introduce companies and investors to the Sun City. Those tours were paid for by donations from private businesses.
Rodriguez said the city needs to recruit industries focused on research or product production, like pharmaceutical and aeronautical companies, rather than bringing in those focused solely on manpower, like calls centers and distribution centers.
El Paso must “leverage and utilize” UTEP and the medical district to bring in businesses, Veliz said. When asked to elaborate, he could not articulate how the city should do this.
Hernandez has been one of the more outspoken members of City Council about the need to publicize the names of businesses and facilities with coronavirus cases. She backed two agenda items that would have directed the El Paso Department of Public Health to disclose places with two or more confirmed cases. The eight-member council was split on those items, with Mayor Dee Margo breaking the tie.
Hernandez said she would consider reintroducing this item if the council makeup changes after the election.
Veliz and Rodriguez said they support disclosing the names of places with coronavirus clusters.
Rodriguez said the pandemic is the most pressing issue facing City Council, but said he doesn’t have specific ideas for improving the city’s response. “I think the city is doing all it can,” he said. “People are going to do what they want to do,” which limits what the city can do to curb the virus’ spread, he said.
Hernandez, who over the summer pushed for the city to use federal stimulus dollars to open more city-run COVID-19 test sites, said she would continue to advocate for this if re-elected.
Veliz agreed that the city needs to open more test sites.
Police reform debate
In addition to criticizing Hernandez’s voting record on taxes, Veliz took aim at her support from El Paso police.
In September, Hernandez received a $2,000 campaign contribution from the El Paso Municipal Police Officers Association political action committee, which donated $2,500 to her previous re-election campaign.
The association hired her fiance, Jeremy Jordan, as consultant for the 2019 Public Safety Bond campaign.
Veliz cast his opponent as the reason why El Paso lacks body cameras for its entire police force.
District 7 city Rep. Henry Rivera, a former police officer, told El Paso Times in July that equipping the city’s 1,170 uniformed officers with cameras would cost $12 million. Most of that cost is due to data storage.
Veliz, who was unfamiliar with these estimates, said the city could pay for cameras with “an efficient spending of the budget.”
Rodriguez, who said he briefly worked as a deputy constable in the 1970s, also supports outfitting every officer with a body camera. “It would cut down (on use of force incidents) if they know they are being watched, if their actions are going to be scrutinized,” he said.
In 2018, Hernandez voted to accept $110,000 in grant funding to purchase an initial 34 cameras. In addition to storage, the cost of hiring staff to manage open records requests for footage has hindered the city from increasing the number of officers wearing cameras, she said. State and federal grants often won’t cover infrastructure and personnel costs, she said.
“Body cameras are not on the top of the priority list, not because it’s not important, it’s because there’s equipment that has not been ignored and has not been replaced for decades,” Hernandez said of a masterplan of the El Paso Police Department’s needs.
She also refuted Veliz’s characterization that she is against police reform. She pointed to her support for a June resolution that directed the city manager to review best practices for creating an independent police review board.
Hernandez said campaign contributions don’t impact her decisions. “I make informed decisions based on the data, based on best practices and policy recommendations … and I always work with my neighborhood associations,” she said.
The biggest donors to her campaign were the El Paso Association of Fire Fighters Local 51 PAC; Bill Correa, CEO of Paragon Project Resources Inc.; Maria Teran, CEO of Sierra Machinery; Rick Francis, chairman and CEO of WestStar Bank; and her sister, Celeste, and brother-in-law Ryan Kieffe, who all gave $2,500, according to her Oct. 5 campaign finance report. Miguel Fernandez, CEO of Transtelco, gave $2,000.
Veliz received $5,000 from the Texas Realtors political action committee, and $1,000 each from Tropicana Building Corp. owners Randy Bowling and Bobby Bowling IV and businessman Gerald Rubin and his wife, Stanlee.