Former McAllen CM satisfied with new Weslaco job

WESLACO -- So how did a Donna High School grad (1971) who grew up in Alamo end up as city manager in the next town over? Fate perhaps. Because he sure took a long circuitous route getting here.

For Mike Perez, his professional claim to fame, of course, is his long 22-year stint as McAllen city manager. He started work there in 1992 and retired from his McAllen duties in March of 2014.

But he apparently couldn’t sit still. Or at least Valley cities who saw the value in his expertise in city government wouldn’t let him. First the city of Hidalgo’s elected leaders called last year, asking if he’d come to work as their interim city manager.And then in December, Weslaco followed suit. But in March of this year, Perez’s interim duties in Weslaco turned permanent. And since then, he’s been this city’s full-time city manager.

He spoke by phone this week with The Advance News Journal detailing his personal and professional travels as well as his plans for Weslaco.

After high school, Perez attended UT-Pan Am. Following graduation, he started his work in municipal government with the north Texas city of Arlington. He followed that up with a three-anda- half year stint in Mercedes, and then went to Harlingen, where he stayed for 11 years, rising from the rank of assistant city manager to city manager.

There’s the well-told tale of Jim Darling, current McAllen mayor, then McAllen city attorney, who courted Perez, on the behalf of the McAllen city commission, led at the time by Othal Brand and Leo Montalvo. “That’s right,” said Perez. “We had lunch in Weslaco at the old Palm Aire Hotel.”

So how did the Weslaco job transpire last December: Perez: “I had talked to (City Secretary) Elizabeth (Walker), and she got appointed (to the job of interim city manager), and I told her that if she needed any help, please call, because I was doing a little consulting here and there. They were going to replace her, and she didn't know who it was going to be, and she recommended that I let the mayor know that I might be available. I talked to the mayor for two minutes, three minutes and that was it. I got a call the next morning about 10:30 from the mayor who asked me to come by his office, so I did. I agreed to the interim job for three months. I really didn't have any desire to stay (full time), but they (the city commission) continued to talk, and you know (how that turned out). I agreed to stay here. I have a contract (for two years -- $180k per), but there's no severance pay. They just need to give me a 30-day notice. Or I can give them a 30- day notice. And we can shake hands and move on.”

So you’ve moved from the top spot in a city, McAllen, with a population of approximately 140,000, to a city with a population of approximately 40,000. So what’s the change been like? Perez: “There are a lot of challenges, a lot of things to work on. Yeah, it's a lot smaller, everybody knows everybody. Socially it is very strong in Weslaco. All of the (city leaders and city advocates) are on Facebook, and socially it's a big thing here in Weslaco. It's a nice community. I'm having a good time, and the council has been very nice and easy to work with.”

And the main challenges currently facing the city? Perez: “I think one is addressing certain basic infrastructure issues, condition of the streets, the water plants, taking care of those things. It's just taking care of (the) basics, and I think they went through some tough economic times about four or five years ago, and they had to really tighten their belt. As a result, not much was placed into maintaining streets, and keeping water lines and things like that (up to par). Taking care of the sidewalks. “Those are the big things we need to work on, and also upgrading some of the parks. It's not big things but it's just the little stuff that makes it look nicer, and we are going to be working on those things, and we are getting ready to start going into the budget process here pretty soon.”

And the reason behind the economic challenges four or five years ago you mentioned were caused by what? Perez: “The depleting fund balances, basic taxes, and they were in the process of borrowing money to build the water plant. When they went to (the bonding) agency, and they are saying (Weslaco’s) working capital and fund (balance) were substandard, they had to make some promises that they would raise their savings up to where they needed to be, and so they promised to get them up over 90 days. In other words, if the city collected not one dime, it could still function for 90 days, both in the general fund and the water and sewer. (Now) they are both on the fund roll for over a hundred days. “We just got the audit. We've exceeded that amount. A lot of the money that they'd been putting away to meet that bond requirement has been met. Now they are going to have the money that's going to be left over so that they can start putting (it) back into infrastructure.”

One nice thing about Weslaco, is that despite the growth to the north of the city, the downtown is still viable and it’s attractive. The one negative seems to be the crime rate, however. So how do you address that? Perez: “We've not done a really good job in Weslaco from the standpoint of crime prevention, and addressing the crime that we have, and there was a pretty aggressive story on us (May 14) on Channel 5, and there was a story in The Monitor. A lot of it has to do with a lot of clerical error, and a lot of things that were probably not done the way they should have been done, and I've talked to the council about it, and I said part of the thing (has to do with police stability). “We have a lot of turnover in that particular department, and you never have the consistency to say we are going to carry this program all the way through. We are going to get it done. Because when you have 11 (police) chiefs in 18 years, you never have a consistency, and employees need to have direction. They need to know that whoever is going to be (police chief), is going to be there for a while. That they are going to implement programs and hold people accountable. “But if you know that the average stay of a police chief in Weslaco is probably not more than 18 months, it's hard for employees to say, ‘Okay, we are going to do this.’ Because, (they’re thinking), they are going to change and then the next guy is going to come in, and he's going to change it, and then the next guy is going to come in. There's been a lot of that that's gotten the police officers frustrated about where do we go now?”

But now Weslaco has a new police chief as of last month. Perez: “Hopefully, his (new Police Chief Stephen Mayer’s) plan is to stay here for a while. That’s a plan both the city council has, and I have as well. “We are looking at establishing processes and systems and holding people accountable for doing the right thing, and also there are programs that we can go ahead and start looking at where are we having crime. “Every time you get a call that goes into the (dispatch) system, you can print it out, saying, where did I have the most burglaries this week? And say, okay, it’s in the southwest portion of town (as an example). Well, that's where you are going to put your (police) emphasis (and resources). “Criminals are just like any other business. They are going to go to where it's easy for them to do business. We have to make it difficult for them to do business in Weslaco."

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