Musk’s SpaceX is quick to build in Texas, slow to pay its bills

May 13, 2024 – 7:57 AM PDT

SpaceX's next-generation Starship spacecraft atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket is prepared for a third launch from the company's Boca Chica launchpad on an uncrewed test flight, near Brownsville, Texas, U.S. March 13, 2024. REUTERS/Joe Skipper/File Photo
SpaceX’s next-generation Starship spacecraft atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket is prepared for a third launch from the company’s Boca Chica launchpad on an uncrewed test flight, near Brownsville, Texas, U.S. March 13, 2024. REUTERS/Joe Skipper/File Photo

(Reuters) – SpaceX is building launch facilities, office buildings and even a shopping center in rural Texas, as billionaire Elon Musk’s space venture rapidly expands its rocket and satellite business across the Lone Star state.

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But a Reuters review of Texas property records shows that SpaceX and its contractors can be far slower to pay builders and suppliers than they are to break ground. Unpaid bills and finger-pointing among contractors, Reuters found, have led many construction-industry businesses to file liens against SpaceX properties in efforts to get compensated.

The result, several of those businesses told Reuters, is a reluctance to work on SpaceX-related projects again. “If they were to call me today, I’d tell them to fuck off,” said Brian Rozelle, an owner of Hydroz Energy Services LLC.

The excavating business was hired by SpaceX to clear storm drains at a facility near Brownsville, the south Texas city where much of the company’s development has taken place. Until about two weeks after Hydroz filed a lien last June – months after it had performed the work – SpaceX didn’t pay its $19,214 bill.

“We’re not some hundred-million-dollar company,” Rozelle said. “It was hard on us.”

SpaceX didn’t respond to requests from Reuters for comment on the liens and complaints from subcontractors and suppliers.

Texas property records show that Hydroz is one of more than two dozen companies that have filed at least 72 liens since 2019 against sites developed by SpaceX and its contractors. Combined, Reuters found, the liens have sought payments totaling more than $2.5 million.

Reuters couldn’t determine for every lien whether outstanding bills were owed by SpaceX or by one of its contractors who commissioned work or materials on its behalf.

Either way, the liens are a legal mechanism through which creditors can secure claims against SpaceX for work done at its properties: Under Texas law, landowners can be held responsible for any unpaid bills related to construction on their real estate.

Even with such legal provisions, property and construction industry experts say collecting can be difficult, especially for small companies without the resources or legal know-how to force bigger businesses to pay up. At times, small businesses may also put up with delays in hopes they’ll ultimately get more work from a larger enterprise.

“SpaceX is the big bully on the playground,” said Carlos Cascos, an accountant and former Texas secretary of state. Previously, as a county official in Brownsville, Cascos, a Republican, voted to approve SpaceX developments there. “They get away with this stuff because people want to do business with them.”

Musk, one of the world’s richest people and best-known entrepreneurs, has been accused of failing to pay creditors before. After his 2022 purchase of the social media platform Twitter, now known as X, he faced a wave of lawsuits from contractors alleging unpaid bills. Many have since been settled.

An X spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.

For SpaceX, the roughly $2.5 million in liens is tiny compared with the size of its business.

Since its founding over two decades ago, the company has steadily won contracts from clients including U.S. space, defense and intelligence agencies. It is now one of the most valuable privately held ventures in the United States, valued by some financial analysts at more than $180 billion.

Through 2022, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the agency paid SpaceX at least $11.8 billion for various projects and services. In 2021, SpaceX signed a classified, $1.8 billion contract with a U.S. intelligence agency to develop a network of spy satellites.

Reuters examined SpaceX and other Musk manufacturing businesses in a series of reports last year.

“DIDDLY-SQUAT”

SpaceX’s recent expansion has benefited several rural areas in Texas – particularly around Boca Chica, a community east of Brownsville, in Cameron County. With the help of a 10-year tax abatement from the county, SpaceX broke ground there in 2014.

Near the mouth of the Rio Grande and next to the Gulf of Mexico, Boca Chica soon became a hub for SpaceX rocket launches. It built a launch pad for its Starship rocket system, taller than the Statue of Liberty, and new buildings related to rocket manufacturing.

SpaceX has remodeled homes and plans to build others. According to filings with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, it has plans for facilities including a shopping center and a $100 million office complex nearby.

Cameron County officials didn’t respond to requests for comment about the developments, SpaceX’s impact on the local economy or the liens.

SpaceX has brought thousands of new jobs to the region and a boon for some builders. The liens, though, reflect frustration for others.

To understand the extent of the claims against SpaceX by Texas construction businesses, Reuters reviewed liens filed over the past five years in Cameron, Bastrop and McLennan counties, where most of the company’s recent developments have been built.

The claimants range from small businesses, like excavator Hydroz, to big companies like Martin Marietta Materials Inc, a construction supply giant based in North Carolina. At least 41 of the 72 liens were filed this year.

Some of the liens have succeeded.

SpaceX, the records show, paid Martin Marietta the $557,611 it claimed in March 2023, about two months after the supplier filed the lien. Martin Marietta didn’t respond to emails or phone calls from Reuters seeking comment.

But many of the liens reviewed by Reuters remain outstanding.

That may be because liens sometimes become effective only when a property goes up for sale, blocking a transaction until the claim is settled. “The liens don’t mean diddly-squat to SpaceX because they’re not going anywhere anytime soon,” said Cascos, the former secretary of state and Cameron County official.

Even some big companies are struggling to get paid.

CMC Construction Services, a Texas-based materials supplier, has 26 locations and a legal department. Starting in July 2022, CMC supplied $129,592 worth of materials for a SpaceX project in Bastrop, near Austin, the state capital. Although CMC filed a lien in January 2023, it still hasn’t been paid, a company official told Reuters.

Osburn Contractors LLC, the contractor to whom CMC sold the supplies, itself has filed a lien citing an unpaid bill by SpaceX, lien records show. Filed last September, the lien seeks $67,289 for concrete work for a related SpaceX project in McGregor, McLennan County. Michael Correra, the Osburn representative who filed that claim, declined to comment.

Sometimes the chain of suppliers and subcontractors confounds the very companies involved in the SpaceX projects.

GC Steel & Accessories LLC, a family-owned company near Brownsville, has been waiting more than 18 months for payment after supplying steel bars and other materials for SpaceX rocket facilities.

According to lien records and Sylvia Garza, one of GC’s owners, the materials were to be used in storage sites for Raptors, a type of SpaceX engine, and a “blast wall,” a barrier used to protect sensitive areas from explosions. GC supplied the materials between August and October 2022 to another subcontractor, RGV Five Star Concrete LLC.

After repeated efforts to get paid, GC last December filed the first of five liens against SpaceX property, claiming a total of $99,591.25. “It’s a lot of money for our company,” Garza told Reuters. “We can’t reach anyone to pay.”

RGV Five Star Concrete, for its part, told Reuters it couldn’t pay GC because it, too, had gone unpaid by yet another contractor involved in the SpaceX project. “We didn’t have money to pay,” said Nancy Garcia, one of the concrete company’s owners.

Garcia declined to identify the other contractor. Reuters couldn’t determine whether SpaceX had paid any company for work or goods that included the materials GC supplied.

Garza said the lack of accountability has strained finances for GC, employer of a dozen workers. “I don’t care who has the money,” she said. “We never got paid.”

Reported by Marisa Taylor in Washington and Steve Stecklow in London. Additional reporting by Mike Scarcella and Joey Roulette in Washington and Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas in Brownsville, Texas. Edited by Paulo Prada.

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