Marfa council polishes 2019-2020 budget, with big goals and expenditures ahead

MARFA – There was an air of satisfaction as Marfa City Council rounded out a vigorous month of budget workshops on Tuesday. The budget is balanced, council members spiritedly advocated their positions, there was a city field trip to tour facilities and, as members wrapped up the meeting with comments, all felt the budget and new tax rate was likely to pass without a hitch at their scheduled budget meeting on Friday.

Mayor Manuel “Manny” Baeza concluded, “I’ve enjoyed the process even when we disagreed on the issues.” When the mayor first proposed a budget in late August, council members asked for a broader vision for the city’s future. As September draws to a close, council now holds an ambitious proposal for the coming year in Marfa, creating a packed agenda ahead. Though funding has been allocated to meet the hopes of council, it will be a challenge to execute all that lies ahead.

One of the largest controversies throughout the process was the allocation of Hotel Occupancy Tax funds. In the original proposal, Baeza slashed grant funds for arts and culture, advertising, and historic preservation; he was met with pushback from local nonprofits who have come to rely on those funds to put on their events and promote them. However, as HOT revenue projections shifted back to normal, the city officials slowly revised grant funds to closer reflect previous years.

The city also chose to take control of historic preservation grants from the HOT Committee for the coming year, allocating funds in advance: $10,000 for Marfa Lights Festival and $10,000 for Chinati Weekend –– the city’s two longest-running festivals, $10,000 to extend the Marfa and Presidio County Museum’s weekly open days, $50,000 to secure the museum’s collapsing wall and nearly $87,000 on a “Convention Center Courtyard” project.

This decision was the city’s effort to invest more in its own infrastructure this coming year. The courtyard project would build out the current carport area behind the USO to create an outdoor venue with landscaping, a restroom and new covered area for vehicles, in the hopes of attracting wedding and events revenue. Council fully funded the effort, hoping to complete it in one year’s time, rather than phasing it out.

Ultimately, HOT committee chair Deirdre Heisler applauded council, saying at the Tuesday meeting, “We totally love what y’all have done with this budget, and I want to thank y’all for that.” Nonprofits agreed, though they did want to see advertising funded a bit better. Council concurred and shifted the HOT advertising funds accordingly.

At this week’s Monday budget meeting, Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda unveiled his own ambitious proposal: to dedicate $300,000 in funds to street repairs and paving for the coming year, hoping to revise the mayor’s initial allocation of $100,000 initially. A percentage of sales tax revenue is allocated to roads every year, and the city has consistently failed to spend all of it. Instead of rolling it over to the next year’s road fund, the money has been put into the general fund at the end of the year. Ben-Yehuda hoped to pull that money back to roads.

Mayor Baeza bristled, asking for more of a plan before putting that much money toward it. Ben-Yehuda replied, “I don’t know that we’ll spend it all, but I think it gives us a pretty good chance. We’re developing a plan and we’re going to go after trying to initiate that plan.” The council member already has an item on tonight’s regular council meeting to consider hiring an engineer to complete a streets plan.

“I want engineers to look at a ten year big plan and right away figure out how to get some action on the street, either in-house or contracted out. Let’s start maintaining things to where the streets in pretty decent condition don’t become a greater liability to us. $300,000 would go partially toward planning, partially toward a match,” Ben-Yehuda said.

The mayor and council all came around to it, with Baeza noting that he can’t go to the post office without being stopped to talk about the roads. It was time to show they were dedicated to fixing the problems ahead, so $300,000 was allocated.

Councilmember Buck Johnston took on the cause of the city’s swimming pool this budget season. When the “Marfa Mermaids,” a group of women who used the pool for water aerobics during the swim season, asked for an extended season, Johnston championed the idea. She found ways to reclassify the pool to “swim at your own risk,” sought out a potential pool manager to oversee the season, and let local resident and mermaid Shelley Bernstein present an ambitious plan to add programming such as swimming lessons, exercise classes and lap swim hours to the pool schedule as well as a rental option for private pool parties.

During a mid-September budget meeting, Councilmember Natalie Melendez proposed her own lofty idea. Most council members had just learned that the Marfa Activity Center held 19 vacant office spaces, and some of the council discussed possibly renting them out to individuals and businesses. The underutilized MAC space also has an empty game room, the seasonally open swimming pool and a rarely used gymnasium. Suddenly, Melendez advanced the idea of establishing some form of city-run childcare.

In the meetings since, Melendez followed up, saying she contacted the Texas Municipal League and learned some of the responsibilities and liabilities involved. Councilmember Ben-Yehuda met with Library Director Mandy Roane to talk about forming an exploratory committee. Whether it’s for students after school, preschool-aged children, infants or some mixture, Melendez was serious about adding city services that local residents desperately need.

Councilmember Irma Salgado successfully passed a longtime goal to establish a city homestead tax exemption, offering 10 percent relief to locals who claim homestead in Marfa. The exemption will hopefully offer relief to families who have struggled to afford rising property taxes as home values grow annually in the area.

Councilmember Raul Lara carried the torch for City Accountant Dan Dunlap, who pushed every meeting to have the city give $50,000 of HOT funds to the county to help support the county-run Marfa Municipal Airport. At times throughout the September meetings, the effort was fully funded. Other times, the line item was zeroed out. At one point, Dunlap presented a spreadsheet that displayed how visitors to the airport are driving HOT revenue in the city and bringing in money to local businesses. Councilmembers Melendez and Ben-Yehuda addressed the county to request EMS fund assistance, and Lara continued to press that the two entities helping each other out was important. Ultimately, the budget proposed will offer $35,000 to the county for the airport this year.

With the budget nearing passage and funding in place for projects, the council will now have to put their actions where their funds are. “I think it’s really important that we try to use this money that we’ve allocated,” Ben-Yehuda said at the end of Tuesday’s meeting.

City Accountant Dunlap told council, “As long as we don’t run out of money, and as long as you are using that money wisely and investing it into long-term growth, then you’re doing good.”

The budget workshops throughout September often ran for hours and many motions were debated and died, but as council summarized the process, Councilmember Lara said, “It’s democracy at its best in Marfa, Texas.” Council will convene for a regular meeting tonight at 6pm and for a budget workshop tomorrow at 6pm, where the city hopes to vote to approve the 2019-2020 budget.