The County Gin sat down with the city manager to reflect on his time spent in public service — a career nearing four and a half decades.
Wharton City Manager Andres Garza Jr. began his career in public service in 1977 as an administrative assistant in Pearsall, Texas. After obtaining his BBA from Southwest Texas State University (Texas State University), he was appointed as the city’s community development director, in charge of all grants.
“We had more than $20 million worth of community projects,” Garza told The County Gin. “We built fire stations, libraries and had about 95% of the city paved through my time there.”
One year into the community development position, Garza was promoted to assistant city manager in charge of finance.
“Six months later, the council appointed me as the interim city manager,” Garza said. “There was an older assistant city manager who had been there longer and I felt like council appointing me to that position could be a problem. I didn’t want to step over him. So, I went to him before accepting that role. He came up through the public works avenue. I worked my way up through the financial side of operations.
“I approached him and expressed my concerns with the council appointing me. We worked out a deal that he would teach me everything about public works and I would teach him everything on the financial side. Together, we would build the city up. We shook hands and continued to work together for six or seven years. He later took a city manager position in another city, but that’s how both he and I learned all aspects of city management.”
Coming to Wharton
“I was appointed on May 16, 1994. That’s when the real work began.”
Garza heard of the open Wharton City Manager position through connections he built within Texas city governments. He saw an opportunity to aid a city in financial despair.
“I knew the city manager (in Wharton) at the time and knew that the city was going through really tough financial times,” Garza told The Gin. “It was very similar to what I experienced at the beginning of my career in Pearsall. I thought it was time for me to find another challenge. I decided to throw my name into the hat and apply.
“When I came to interview for the position, there were probably 10 to 12 citizens, as well as the council and mayor to conduct the interview. They were very concerned for the city. I requested financials prior to the interview and agreed that it was in bad shape, but I explained that it could be fixed with a lot of work. I was appointed on May 16, 1994. That’s when the real work began.”
The first years were a challenge to Garza, with the main focus on the financial and infrastructure of the city.
“At that time the elected body and staff were very anxious about moving the city forward,” Garza said. “One of the things we implemented was our strategic planning sessions. We were so far behind on a lot of things that the future was hard to predict.
“So, we would meet every two years to plan for only the next five years. This made sure everybody was on the same page moving forward, really focusing into the city’s infrastructure. I call it the non-sexy things like water lines, sewer lines, wastewater treatment plants and elevated storage tanks. We started planning and started taking action on those specific items.”
“Working with WEDC, the city has been able to benefit by the introduction of corporations and expansions to existing businesses.”
In order for the city to repair its financial status and to continue to ease the tax burden on its citizens, Garza worked with the elected body to promote economical commerce.
“In January 1998, the city council called an election for an economical development corporation,” Garza said. “Wharton Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) was created following that election and presented some additional challenges. That amount of money that would now go to WEDC was used prior by the city to reduce the property tax rate.
“When that election passed, the council said, ‘We have to keep the same tax rate.’ We had just lost all those funds that were collected in sales tax; however, we were able to make it through with the leadership of the mayor and council.
“Working with WEDC, the city has been able to benefit by the introduction of corporations and expansions to existing businesses. The addition of the power plant on Highway 60 brought in much needed funding for city operations.”
The flood of 1998
Four years after joining the city to work toward stability, the entire city experienced devastation. The flood of 1998 led Garza and the elected leadership to embark on what would be a 20-year-long legislation battle to flood-proof the city of Wharton.
“(Wharton’s) economically depressed west side, which lines the Colorado River, was battling the flood waters. About 1,500 people were evacuated from the area. About 250 found haven in a municipal shelter in El Campo, 15 miles away.
“‘It doesn’t sound like much, but (the 1-foot-lower crest) makes a big difference,’ said Wharton County Judge Lawrence Naiser. The higher crest would have backed up creeks on the city’s north side, allowing flood waters to swamp most of the town, he said.”Excerpt from The Los Angeles Times, published Oct. 23, 1998
“Several of the river towns along Texas’ broad coastal plain, such as Victoria, had significant sections under water. Some, such as Cuero, were swamped and virtually cut off. At others, like Wharton, the worst was yet to come.
“Though the rain had diminished to a drizzle and the sun was beginning to peek through the clouds here and there, the Guadalupe, Brazos, San Bernard, Colorado and several other smaller creeks and rivers were all well beyond their banks yesterday.”Excerpt from The Baltimore Sun, published Oct. 22,1998
“That flood really came in and exposed the vulnerability of the city,” Garza told The Gin. “We had experienced several floods, but that was the eye-opener. The leadership at that time really focused on what we could do to help our city and that’s when the levee/flood reduction process began. Everything was set into motion.”
“After those studies and planning, the elected leadership had to stay after it. The city spent a lot of money preparing for that moment when the levee project would get approved. We kept saying, ‘The moment is going to come. The question is, are we going to be prepared for that moment?’”
Transportation and planning for expansion
Throughout his tenure, Garza was able to implement the widening of FM1301 and Richmond Road to better allow transportation and future development along Highway 59/I-69.
“When Buc-ees came in, we were able to develop the (FM102) corridor,” Garza said. “We always said that a lot of future of the city is going to come with I-69. That project, the FM1301 expansion project and the FM102 corridor project are critical to the development of the city.
“In about 2005, we came in and expanded to loop our water system all the way down Highway 59/I-69. So, there are water and sewer lines that will be able to catch any type of development that would occur one mile on either side of that highway. We had and have to look at what is needed now and what is needed in the future as far as expansion.
“This city is going to grow. If you look at what Sugar Land was 20, 30 years ago, it was just like Wharton is now. Rosenberg was the same way. Those cities have grown and the population of the State of Texas is going to double. So, it’s going to move to us. If you just concentrate on the today and the future comes, then you’re unprepared. You could miss those opportunities by not planning ahead.”
Comprehensive planning and looking to the future
“Finally, after years and years of appealing to the federal government, the levee project was approved with 100% funding. Now, there’s only the future.”
In 2018, the city performed a 10-year study to develop its 2018-2028 Comprehensive Plan which includes: population studies; water, wastewater and sewage planned improvements; housing studies; street improvements projects; and many other goals set by citizens and elected leadership.
“We completed our comprehensive plan and we looked at 15 years down the road,” Garza said. “When I began, anything over five years in advance was what I like to call, ‘Castles in the sky.’ Now, we’ve set a foundation with the comprehensive plan that we need to follow.
“Our street improvement project is about to begin, homes are being built, the thoroughfares are being planned and economic growth is projected. Our staff and elected leadership is on the right track to continue building on what we have set in place.”
These plans were completed after federal and state approval of the City of Wharton Levee Project — a project that when completed, could be the city’s saving grace.
“Hurricane Harvey was a game changer for the city,” Garza told The County Gin. “We knew the levee was crucial for the city to move forward. Every flood set the city and its citizen back. Finally, after years and years of appealing to the federal government, the levee project was approved with 100% funding. Now, there’s only the future.”
Garza officially informed the Wharton City Council and mayor of his intent to retire on Monday, Sept. 14 — a decision that the city manager said has been weighing heavily on his mind.
“When I started my career, I planned to work until I hit about 65 years of age,” Garza said. “I turned 65 last February. I wanted to retire in 2017 and then Hurricane Harvey happened. I thought I couldn’t retire right now. The city had just suffered another devastating event. We worked through the levee planning and then came the start of 2018.
“I thought, ‘Well, this is probably the time.’ Then in August of that year, the day after my wife and I celebrated our 38 year anniversary, I went in to have a quadruple bypass surgery.”
After the surgery, Garza’s health improved, but the city manager knew it was time to step down to spend the remainder of his time with his family.
“I need to spend time with my family while I can,” Garza told The Gin. “When we came here, my youngest son was 2-years-old and now he’s 28. My sons grew up here, my wife and I have enjoyed the community, but they have moved near San Antonio.
“I have one 6-year-old grandson. I have only been able to see him every weekend or while on vacation. It’s time to spend quality time with them while I can. You never know what could happen that could leave me physically unable to do activities with them.”
Leaving behind a legacy
“I thank my Lord and Savior for the opportunity and ability to see through my career.”
“Forty-three years. I’ve been in public service for 43 years,” Garza said. “I think back to high school when all I wanted was to be a coach and educator. I wanted to instill the words of wisdom, determination and dedication that help mold a person into who they become. I’d like to think that is what I have been able to do here in my time of service.
“In small cities like this, the need is always greater than the funds available. We all have to understand our role and responsibility is to service our community and improve the lives of our citizens.
“These past 26 years in Wharton haven’t been easy, but what I strived to instill in the staff is to always remember we are a service-oriented organization. You have to have respect for everyone, even if they don’t respect you. I have always told them that if you get into an argument with a citizen, you lose. Even if you’re right, you lose. You always have to calm any escalated situation down. I hope a little bit of me stays with the staff in that aspect.
“Even with the elected bodies, I have aimed to coach and educate each one about all the processes and procedures of the city so they could make their decisions in confidence and take care of the citizens. I thank the staff and elected body throughout my years. Even if we weren’t always aligned, I still enjoyed working with each of them.
“I always aim to leave a place in better condition than when I first come in. I think I have done that here. This is a great community which has been wonderful to me and my family. There’s a lot of things that still need to happen, but Wharton is on the right path.”
Garza is set to retire January 2021 and will work alongside Wharton City Council members to find his replacement.
“I thank my Lord and Savior for the opportunity and ability to see through my career,” he said. “I will always hold Wharton in my heart.”