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Sullivan City settled a lawsuit with Starr County last year, promising to pay $105,000 and abandon a 300-acre annexation.
The dispute started during October 2014, when Sullivan City attempted to annex 300 acres across the Hidalgo County-Starr County line — extending the city west toward La Grulla.
“We weren’t getting anywhere,” said Sullivan City Mayor Leo Garcia. “It was just costing the city a lot of money. Thousands of dollars.”
Sullivan City couldn’t afford the cost of protracted litigation, Garcia said, adding that he considered the lawsuit a waste of taxpayer money.
Concerned about the cost, the City Commission authorized Garcia to negotiate a settlement agreement with Starr County.
Garcia and City Attorney Armando “Mando” Marroquin met with Starr County Judge Eloy Vera and attorney Julian C. Gomez, who represented Starr County, during November.
They struck a deal: Sullivan City would pay $105,000 and abandon the annexation.
Sullivan City cut a $60,000 check in December and must pay the remaining $45,000 by June 15, according to city records. Sullivan City also agreed to abandon the 300-acre annexation and promised not to annex any property in Starr County for at least five years.
The settlement is a huge sum for Sullivan City, which collects roughly $400,000 in property taxes every year.
“They wanted a lot more money,” Garcia said, adding that he negotiated the amount down to $105,000. “We tried our best on that one.”
Starr County Judge Eloy Vera didn’t respond to requests for comment about the settlement agreement.
While Sullivan City settled the lawsuit, questions about the city’s ability to annex property remain.
In Texas, a city with more than 5,000 residents may adopt what’s called a “home rule charter,” which comes with new annexation authority.
Sullivan City adopted a home rule charter in November 2008, declaring the city had more than 5,000 residents. The U.S. Census, though, counted just 4,002 people in 2010.
The attorney for Starr County argued that Sullivan City didn’t meet the population threshold, limiting the city’s annexation powers, according to court transcripts.
“Initially, they claimed the city needed permission to annex property in Starr County. And that wasn’t so. Then they claimed that notices hadn’t been sent out to the utilities in that area. And that really is not a valid argument,” said attorney Ric Gonzalez, who represented Sullivan City in court.
“Ultimately what they did is: they claimed when the city adopted the charter it had not met the 5,000 in population. That’s what they threw at the city.”
The argument could pose future problems for Sullivan City.
After the court blocked Sullivan City’s attempt to annex property in Starr County, the city went east along U.S. 83 toward Havana — annexing 308 acres in December 2015.
Cities don’t always rely on the census when determining whether or not they meet the threshold, said Javier Villalobos, a McAllen-based attorney who represents cities and school boards. Utility connections, satellite photos and other data may provide alternative estimates.
“They don’t have to go by the census. As a matter of fact, the census is probably incorrect,” Villalobos said.
“For example, a lot of the undocumented individuals will not respond to the census, even if they’re residents.”
Retroactively challenging an annexation solely on the basis of population would present major hurdles for a property owner.
“I think, after the fact, it’d be a little difficult to attack it,” Villalobos said.