- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

MCALLEN, Texas (AP) - A South Texas city commission decided Wednesday night to offer the school district two options in order to have its water service restored.

The La Villa City Commission decision after a state agency declined to force the city to unilaterally turn the taps back on in La Villa Independent School District schools.

The city says the district owes about $58,000 on its water bill because it has refused to pay a higher rate set in December 2012. So, the district’s water was cut off after students left for holiday vacation.

School was supposed to start up again Monday, but without water, there’ve been no classes.

The district now has a choice between two rates, both less than specified in the rate ordinance, interim city attorney Roel Gutierrez said Wednesday night. One rate would be higher but would carry less back payments, he said

School Superintendent Narciso Garcia declined comment until he sees the proposal. He said the school board will meet in emergency session Thursday night.

The options were offered hours after the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality rejected the School District’s request for an emergency order, noting the commission isn’t authorized to intervene in the water fee dispute.

“This is probably one of the most upsetting cases that I’ve looked at,” said Commissioner Toby Baker. “I’m upset that we’ve got a bunch of kids who are pawns in some deal that’s going on between the city and the ISD.”

Turning off the taps was the most dramatic move in a dispute that has lasted for more than a year.

In December 2011, the city approved adding a surcharge for water and sewer service to the school district on top of the usage rate. It initially was set at $10 per person - students and staff - but the district fought it down to $6 and the two sides inked an agreement in November 2012. The city commission turned around the following month and raised the surcharge to $14.

In a letter to the commission this week, the city said it has numerous issues with its water and sewer system, including “a general distrust of the quality of the drinking water in the city of La Villa.”

The school district buys purified water from elsewhere for drinking.

A rate study commissioned by the city in 2007 recommended rate increases because the system had been operating at a loss.

Richard Fryer, an attorney representing the school district, told commissioners at Wednesday’s hearing that the city is treating the school district like it’s the solution to its financial problems.

“The city is seeing the golden goose being the schools,” Fryer said.

Gutierrez told commissioners it was simply a billing dispute and the water was cut in an effort to get the district to pay its bill.

“The district has the money and the funds to pay the balance and restore water to the school district,” Gutierrez said.

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