City manager reflects on 20 years in Groves ahead of retirement

Published 12:30 am Thursday, December 29, 2022

GROVES — When D.E. Sosa first took office as the city manager in 2003, he immediately sat down to challenges.

K-Mart had closed and Walmart relocated to Port Arthur, creating a loss in sales tax. But at the time, Sosa said Walmart’s new building across the street from Groves would spur development.

“And it did,” he said Wednesday in the office he has started to pack up.

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A box of frames contained photos of family, including his children, Adam and Ryan. The former was 18 when Sosa moved from Giddings to Groves, while the latter was only weeks old. Now the 2022 graduate of Port Neches-Groves High School who was catcher for the school’s varsity baseball team is serving as a catcher at Lamar University.

After submitting a separation agreement to the city council on Dec. 22, Sosa will retire from city government on Jan. 3.

“You know how in dog years, one year equals seven years?” he said. “City managers usually last three to five years, so I beat the odds.”

The Port Arthur native previously worked for his hometown and Nederland before moving to Giddings. And now the longtime city official is reflecting back on 20 years in Mid County, as well as looking forward at what’s to come.

“I’m most proud of the fact that the Groves (Economic Development Corporation) put a program together to basically do some incentives to attract businesses here,” he said. “There have been many, many businesses that have opened up and the EDC did two things — they helped attract the businesses and also approved our curb appeal.”

The proof, he said, is apparent when looking down 39th Street or Lincoln Avenue.

“The sales tax is just through the roof right now,” Sosa said. “All the seeds that were planted 10-5 years ago are taking root right now. The year that K-Mart and Walmart closed, we lost $400,000 in sales tax revenue. This last year we broke $2.6 million — our best year ever. And even when we had K-Mart and Walmart, a good year for us would be $1.6 million.”

For every $1 million sold, the EDC receives $5,000 and the city receives $10,000.

“We’ve increased our sales tax by one million dollars,” he said. “And that’s not big box stores; that’s mom and pops.”

Although Sosa has seen the addition of several chains, such as Starbucks and Chick-fil-A that opened their doors this year. Currently they’re awaiting the opening of one new restaurant and the rebranding of another.

A lot of that, he said, stems from the city’s Peace and Dignity program.

“You see the city tearing down dangerous structures,” he said. “And if someone wants to buy that lot, we have incentives for them to build a house on it. It’s worked out beautifully. You can see our population has grown.”

New territory

Sales tax isn’t the only thing that hit record numbers in the last 20 years. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey dropped 60.54 inches of rain on Groves. That was just below the 60.58 recorded in Nederland, which set the record for the most rainfall from a tropical event in the U.S, according to a report from the National Weather Service.

“There are some people in Groves that are high enough that their streets didn’t flood during Harvey,” Sosa said. “At the time we had about 6,500 homes. 2,000 were damaged by water — either one inch or two feet, but either one was just as bad.”

But by the time Harvey hit, city officials were well-versed in storm repair.

“I grew up in this area and from the time I was 1-year-old to the time I was 45 years old, I evacuated once,” he said while sitting near Fire Chief and Emergency Management Coordinator Lance Billeaud. “Since I was 45 and took this job, while I didn’t evacuate, we’ve evacuated, what Chief, eight times?”

“At least six that I know of,” Billeaud responded.

The two had been visiting together as they have for a long time, with Billeaud serving 25 years with the Groves Fire Department.

“When we declare an emergency, this is the guy that makes everything happen. He is the emergency management coordinator, the mayor becomes the assistant coordinator, and I become “hey, boy,” Sosa said with a laugh. “Just to give you an example, the very first one we had, his guys were on city equipment, bulldozers and stuff, clearing streets. The streets were cleared and we had firefighters on top of equipment. It was every hand on deck and everybody was doing what they needed to do. I hate to say it, but we know how to handle a disaster. We’ve had plenty of practice.”

Following Jan. 3, Billeaud will add one more title to his name — interim city manager.

“He’s tremendously popular in the community, and he’s already built some of the relationships that a city manager needs to have to be successful,” Sosa said. “He’ll hit the ground running. He’ll do whatever needs to be done and take care of the city employees, and give confidence to the employees until they find another city manager. And he was chosen for that reason because he’s already got those established relationships with everybody — the school district, the churches, the sports, the coaches, the community. He is just perfect for this job.”

Mayor Chris Borne made similar statements when Billeaud was appointed to the position Dec. 22.

“Chief Billeaud is a respected member of this city and also a great point of contact for all of our employees,” the mayor said. “He has been in a management role. He is very well liked, very well trusted and I believe that all of this staff will do a great job of helping him…with what we’ve got coming. I truly believe that he will do whatever is needed for this city.”

Community support

“People don’t realize when you deal with being a city manager or an economic development coordinator, it’s about relationships,” Sosa said. “Your word is all you have. When a developer trusts you, they go out on a limb and say Groves is a good place to bring business. That’s the key — that they trust you and they know they’re welcome in our city.”

He said that also extends to the residents, as well as the two other Mid County cities. Sosa has maintained close relationships with Nederland City Manager Chris Duque and Port Neches City Manager Andre Wimer.

“We eat lunch together every Thursday at The Pompano and we’ve been doing that for over 20 years, even before I got here,” he said. “And it is the best meeting of my week.”

That relationship has also led to partnerships that have benefited all three cities, such as a shared central dispatch for emergency calls, as well as a shared IT department.

It’s also led to some laughs.

“One of my favorite stories is, me and Chris have the same type of garbage system,” Sosa said. “Several years ago Chris had some problems and he needed some help, so I sent him one of my trucks. Now, the truck on the side of it had ‘Shop Groves First,’ and he didn’t think that was funny but it wasn’t a joke. Then just recently, I’ve had some garbage truck issues and I called him for help and he’s helped us. If Port Neches had containers, we’d help them, too.”

A new chapter

While Sosa will be leaving City Hall, he will still be active in the community.

“We want to get settled in and see how things pan out,” he said regarding his retirement. “I’m going to go to a lot of baseball games, I can tell you that right now.”

And when asked if there was anything he wished to say, the outgoing city manager gave plenty of praise to the city and the people in it.

“It has been an honor to work in Groves. And I feel like with the support of the city councils and the support and assistance of all of our employees, I feel very comfortable that Groves is a lot better today than it was when Walmart and K-Mart were leaving,” he said.

“It’s not perfect, but we’ve come a long way. The city employees are tremendous and the citizens are great. My son learned how to play baseball in Groves, Texas and now he’s playing baseball for Lamar University. I love the programs around here and I love the sports enthusiasm. I love Port Arthur, but I’m a Groves person now. My son grew up in Groves; he’s an Indian. And I just think I was in the right place at the right time for the right amount of time.”

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