Thu March 7, 2013
Small Towns Struggle Too
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, many small colleges say they're making a big push to diversify, but what happens when those diverse students and faculty actually show up? We'll talk about that in just a few minutes. But first we want to talk about some of the financial struggles that cities and towns have been having over the last few years.
Earlier this week we talked about Detroit which has been in the headlines. Things are so bad there that the governor of Michigan took steps toward a state takeover of the city's finances. Yesterday, Detroit City Council voted to try to fight that takeover. But it occurred to us that it isn't just the big famous cities fighting the battle against red ink. According to the U.S. Census, the average American city is actually about one percent of the size of Detroit, or under 8,000 people.
That, give or take a few hundred, is about the size of Floresville, Texas. That's the city that Diana Garza leads as mayor. It's just south of San Antonio, but we ran into Mayor Garza here in Washington D.C. when she was taking some meetings to try to fix the situation in her city. So we invited her to tell us more about the struggles she faces as the mayor of a small city. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
MAYOR DIANA GARZA: Thank you, Michel, for having me.
MARTIN: What's the financial situation in Floresville?
GARZA: Well, right now why we came up to Washington is trying to get more availability of grants, because right now there's a lot of money that has been cut back. A lot of the grants are grants/loans. So we're looking to see if we can find any 100 percent grants. We're up to trying to get a sewer plant improvement that's going to be needed.
We also have a lot of infrastructure needs because of the Eagle Ford Shell. That's the oil boom that's going down south of our town about 18 miles. So we've been - we've upped to six hotels now. We probably will see more and we have a lot of new construction going on. So all of that is costing infrastructure monies that we were not prepared for.
MARTIN: Is the issue here - you know, Detroit is facing a situation of potentially not being able to pay their bills in a couple of months' time, not being able to pay their police officers, firefighters, teachers. That's not your situation.
GARZA: That's not our situation. We are paying our bills. Yes, definitely.
MARTIN: So what's the problem? Is the problem that the city just isn't generating enough tax revenue to pay...
MARTIN: ...for the needs that - the things that people want and expect?
GARZA: They're coming up. They're coming up, yes.
MARTIN: Like what? Like roads, schools?
GARZA: Road improvement. No, school - we have a real good high school that has a college - Alamo Colleges out of San Antonio that is able to be there at our high school where the kids can take dual credits and graduate already, with either, like, a welder's certificate, we have a culinary school there, even nursing. The school is doing great. But as you see now, they're going to be cutting in the education also, so everybody's facing cutbacks.
MARTIN: Why are you facing cutbacks?
GARZA: Well, I'm saying that the United States is doing the cutbacks, you know, like in education, for example.
MARTIN: That's another question I had for you, is the big news in Washington D.C. is the so-called sequester, these across-the-board federal budget cuts that have gone into effect because the White House and Congress couldn't agree...
MARTIN: ...on a plan to reduce the deficit. Do you know how that might affect you?
GARZA: Well, it's going to affect us in every way, but we just don't know exactly where they're going to do the cuts, you know, and how much. You know, and I'm sure it'll be - like on the taxes, for example, you know, we have a lot of our sales tax that we get our revenues from for a general fund. So we don't know exactly - they're going to do the transportation, which would affect our streets.
So there's a lot of cutbacks that they're doing that I just don't know how they're going to affect us.
MARTIN: What are the major employers in your town? What do most people do for a living?
GARZA: Most of our citizens travel to San Antonio for their jobs. In Floresville we have the use - the utility companies. We have a big grocery store. The school, teachers, is the highest employer. The city employees. We have lots of restaurants. Wal-Mart. I don't know if you're familiar with Wal-Mart. They're all over the world.
MARTIN: Yeah. We've heard of it. Yeah.
GARZA: And that's, basically, all the employers that are there for those stores. Everybody else goes to San Antonio.
MARTIN: How has the recession affected your city? Personally, your profession is real estate.
GARZA: It's real estate. Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: You're a realtor.
GARZA: Yes, ma'am.
MARTIN: And we know that, you know, housing has been really bumpy over the last few years.
GARZA: Oh, you're not just kidding. The shortage is unreal. Right now we have 124 apartments going up. They're well needed. A new housing subdivision is going to be going up with about 200 homes that we really need, that would start, like, when the, say, about $180,000 and up - which is really needed. Because all these people that are moving into town are going to purchase instead of renting because rentals are out.
I mean, you can't find a rental anywhere within 60 miles. People are buying because the rentals are so expensive. You can get - buy a home for a lot less of a payment than you are going to pay for rent. At least it's an investment.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking to Diana Garza. She's the mayor of Floresville, Texas. That's the city south of San Antonio. We caught up with her in Washington D.C. looking for some financial help for her city and we thought it would be good to get a sense of what's going on in the smaller cities and towns now that big cities like Detroit are grabbing the headlines with their financial difficulties.
Talk to us, if you would, about what kind of help you are looking for here. Obviously for, you know, this is an expensive trip.
GARZA: Yes. Which we paid for by ourselves. We did not...
MARTIN: You paid for it out of your own pocket.
MARTIN: And in fact, I think it might be worth - if you don't mind - my telling people this is not exactly a job that you take, as mayor, to get rich. Do you mind if I ask how much do you make as mayor?
GARZA: Definitely. A hundred dollars a month.
MARTIN: Wait a minute. Can I say that again? A hundred dollars a month?
GARZA: A month. Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: And what about the City Council? What do they get?
GARZA: Seventy-five dollars a month.
MARTIN: And you've taken one city employee with you and she paid her own way too?
GARZA: Yes. Mm-hmm. She's taking vacation time.
MARTIN: She's taking vacation time to come up here.
MARTIN: So that's how it is.
GARZA: Yes. Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: What kind of help do you think you might be able to get here?
GARZA: Well, I took office on November the 17th, so this is still new to me and everything. So I wanted to come out and research and see what is available out here for us. So our congressman, Henry Cuellar, set us up with some meetings yesterday and today, which will continue - we'll be going back home tomorrow - to see, talk to the head people in these departments. Like FEMA. We talked to FEMA yesterday. Today we're meeting with the EDA.
There's other meetings he's set up for us.
MARTIN: The EDA, the Economic Development...
GARZA: Yes, ma'am.
MARTIN: ...Agency. Mm-hmm.
GARZA: And then yesterday we were supposed to have the USDA meeting which is really the one we wanted, and they're going to try to set us up today since the weather yesterday.
MARTIN: The Department of Agriculture.
MARTIN: To see if there is some grants that can help.
MARTIN: Why did you want this job? Because it's certainly not to advance your own financial wellbeing.
MARTIN: If I can say that. Because every minute you're here you're not selling houses.
GARZA: No. Let me tell you that I lived in Laredo - Floresville's our hometown, my husband and I, and we lived in Laredo for 27 years. I was very involved in the community there, as I am now in Floresville. And he decided to retire from school. He was a coach in a school for 35 years. And we decided to go back home. Well, when we went back home it didn't seem like the home that we had left.
We would do our monthly visits and stuff. So we started attending the county meetings, commissioners meetings, and the City Council meetings, trying to find out what was going on in our city at the time. And I just thought that the city had changed too much and not really in the right direction, that I felt. So I thought, you know what, I think I can do this. And I would complain to my friend Henry, the congressman.
And he finally told me, he says, you know, Diana, the only way you're going to make a difference is by getting involved. Run for office. So he was surprised when I told him I did it. I'm running for mayor.
MARTIN: And you won. And is it congratulations of condolences at this point?
GARZA: And I'm the first female mayor, by the way. I had three opponents and I did very well. So up to now, everything has been going well. First, being a woman, I think our city was ready for a change. We're more transparent now. There's no hiding of any information. Anybody that can request anything, you know, has those 10 days to get it. So it's just that the employees there were more - so set in their ways, the way the previous administration did.
And now to have a new fresh outlook at something, it just gets them all excited. We're going to be doing good things. And we have started on the right foot, so.
MARTIN: What are some of the other challenges you face in this job? I did note that you are the first female mayor of the city. Are some folks having any difficulties adjusting to that?
GARZA: Not at all. Not at all. It has been really - I've been very received everywhere. And like I said, I was already involved in the community since we moved there. So now they just see me more, you know, more ribbon cuttings, you know, business-of-the-month events, you know, parties. I was a speaker at the - for the hospital last week at a dinner that they had. And the chamber, I used to be involved with the chamber, but I stepped down because I thought it would be a conflict of interest a little bit. But, no, everybody has been receiving me very, very well.
MARTIN: Is there something that you would like people to know about being a public official that you perhaps - or running a city at this point in our history that people may not know? We often - you know, when you often talk about, you know, political officials, it's kind of in a negative light, like, oh, you know - any comedy show you turn on, you know, at late night, you'll hear jokes about...
MARTIN: ...public officials.
MARTIN: Is there anything you would kind of like to share with people about the experience that they may not know?
GARZA: Well, I'll tell you what I have learned, is that everybody has an answer for everything. And what I say is, you know, it's easy to say something from the outside, but it's harder to get involved and try to make a difference. And that's what I would like to see more of the people in our town do, is come out to our city council meetings. We meet twice a month. Ask questions. We allow citizens' comments at any time, and it doesn't have to be about something that's on the agenda. If they heard about something during the week or something, they need an answer or something, we're more than willing to hear them. And that's what I would like to see, is more people come out, instead of complaining that the restaurants are wherever they're at - you know, the whole gossip thing.
MARTIN: And, finally, because you happen to be in Washington, D.C., which is where we caught up with you - and thank you again for taking the time to come and...
GARZA: You're welcome.
MARTIN: ...speak with us. Is there something that you wish the people in Washington knew about your job that you think they may not know? You're here to learn from them about what kinds of support might be available for your city.
MARTIN: But I think, you know, knowledge is a two-way street. Is there anything you think you would like them to know about your job that perhaps they don't know?
GARZA: Well, you know, I'm going to tell you that I've been surprised at how receptive everyone here in Washington has been since, like I said, it's not my first trip to Washington. It is my fifth trip here, but never to do what I'm doing now. But everybody has been so helpful in putting me in contact with the right people, and then they're always telling you call us if you have any questions, if we can help you with anything. And I was really surprised to - I thought I was going to be up here, and there was going to be, well, like, you know, well, maybe we'll help you. Maybe we won't. I have not been told no. You know, they've been giving me the information. They've been taking our emails, our phone numbers. Or they'll continue sending this information as things come up on what we need. I'm really happy with that, and I really want to thank them for that.
MARTIN: Well, thank you so much, mayor. Good luck to you.
GARZA: Thank you.
MARTIN: Diana Garza is the mayor of Floresville, Texas. That's a city outside San Antonio. It's actually about the size of the average American city, give or take a few hundred people. And she was kind enough to stop by our studios here in Washington, D.C., where she's taking some business meetings on her own time and on her dime to try to help out her city.
Mayor Garza, thank you so much for speaking with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.