A potpourri of progress at Marfa City Council meeting

MARFA — Marfa City Council tackled a wide variety of subjects at Tuesday’s meeting, approving new measures for roads, underground water, short term rentals and employee leave policies.

Paid leave and vacation policy changes

Mayor Pro Tem Irma Salgado has pushed the effort to provide paid family leave for city employees ever since officials learned about a police officer saving up personal days for her maternity leave. Salgado and council finally approved new measures on Tuesday night that would provide an additional six weeks of paid sick or family leave after the employee has exhausted their personal leave, paid leave, sick leave, vacation time and worker’s compensation time if applicable.

The council unanimously approved this amendment to the City of Marfa Employee Handbook, and employees will be able to take off for themselves or for family going through pregnancy or illness.

Councilmember Buck Johnston said, “In addition to that, we want to encourage our employees to take their vacation.” Staff in the city have accumulated troves of vacation days.

The change closely follows the Family and Medical Leave Act, though Marfa’s includes six weeks of paid leave, rather than FMLA’s twelve weeks of leave that are unpaid and only guarantees the employee’s position will be available to them when they return to work.

City Attorney Teresa Todd noted that while it’s great for employees, it could mean the city deals with long absences, but Salgado responded, “I see this as something we need to do for our employees.”

The council also reduced the number of vacation days employees can carry over each year, instead encouraging employees to use their vacation or lose it. Employees will have one year to use up vacation before any is lost, and employees of the city for more than 15 years will be grandfathered in at the old maximum level of 240 days carryover.

A path for Marfa roads

Texas-based KSA Engineers presented their scope of work for repairing Marfa streets that includes developing a road condition assessment, assembling a 10-year road maintenance plan and developing a “complete street” framework that identifies “transformative transportation projects.”

Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda told attendees, “To me the top two goals are developing an annual maintenance plan so streets already in okay shape, stay in okay shape, and looking for those bigger projects we can’t just do because we want to. Those might be three, five, or 10 year projects to reconstruct streets.”

Ben-Yehuda said the firm was “being flexible to use resources we already have to save us money, and put our money where we actually want it, which is fixing streets.” The firm will also consider infrastructure wholistically. Instead of tearing up streets to install new water lines a few years after they were paved, the plan will incorporate water, sewer, internet and other considerations to coordinate those improvements to coincide with roadwork.

The firm’s initial step will help the city update the 2017 comprehensive plan’s road assessment, which will help the city’s eligibility for more grant funding for road projects.

Long-term solutions for short-term rentals

As the number of short-term rentals in Marfa has burgeoned, council is hoping to move oversight off the plates of city staff and onto a third party. HOST Compliance LLC tracks the rental markets, monitors hotel occupancy tax collection and assists cities in enforcing short-term rental ordinances. Attorney Todd said, “Basically it’s become bigger than we can manage.”

The elected officials voted unanimously to approve a $22,000 contract with the company, which Councilmember Johnston explained cost less than having a full time city staff member doing the monitoring and provided many more resources and technologies than the city could otherwise access.

In an initial assessment, HOST Compliance found nearly 150 short term rentals, counting rentals based on address, even if individual addresses had multiple rental units. Council also decided short-term rental owners will pay a yearly $150 registration fee to the city, which will go toward covering the contract cost. The $150 is based on the company’s recommendation to set the yearly registration price near the cost of one or two nights of the average Marfa rental.

The company described their service as “Cost-effective solutions to Marfa’s short-term rental registration, compliance monitoring, fraud, audit and enforcement challenges,” in a presentation the LLC provided to council. The company will also help the city update the rental ordinance.

Clark Childers, who runs eleven short-term rentals in Marfa, spoke from the audience to say he supported the change and looks forward to being able to use an online portal to pay hotel occupancy taxes.

The program is expected to begin February 1.

“Baby steps” to join the water district

The Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District presented a nonbinding memorandum of understanding, asking City of Marfa to enter into term negotiations about eventually joining the district. The City of Presidio signed a memorandum of understanding with the district last month.

The water district covers all of the county, but currently excludes the two incorporated cities of Marfa and Presidio. Should either city join the district officially, they will relinquish the “Midland Exemption” and fall under the district’s “jurisdiction, rules and protections.”

The water district will negotiate with the cities to hopefully reach an understanding on terms before any binding agreement to join the water district is passed. The cities would then each receive a seat on the board.

Currently, the Marfa wells aren’t monitored like they should be, and the cities aren’t protected from potential future wells that could demand high levels of pumping, according to district chairman Trey Gerfers, who spoke to council on Tuesday.

Outlining the current lack of protections, Gerfers said, “If a water marketer or a city or a company were to decide to lease some land adjacent to one of the wells that Marfa has, and come to the district to say they want to pump a million gallons a day and want a 30-year term, they’d look at all the landowners and that the spacing applied to the well, but they’d look at all landowners except City of Marfa, because they’re exempt because of the Midland Exemption.

“This has been attempted twice and failed failed failed. Either Marfa didn’t want it or Presidio didn’t want it,” Gerfers said, explaining why they’re trying the “baby step” of a nonbinding agreement. “This gives, then, a framework within which we can negotiate.”

Attorney Todd called the memorandum brilliant, saying that with a maximum fee of $5,500, “It’s really cheap for the protection you get from the district.”

Council approved the memorandum and chose Councilmember Buck Johnston, City Manager John Washburn and City Attorney Teresa Todd to serve on the board. There will be preliminary separate meetings for the cities, then a joint meeting of Presidio, Marfa and the district.

Other news

  • Presidio County will move voting to the USO Building for Precincts 1 and 7, for both the primary and general elections in 2020. There will be three other county polling places in the south county area.
  • A group of “East Heights” residents attended the meeting to ask the city to consider expanding water to their neighborhood, which lies east of city limits, south of the railroad track and north of highway 90. Councilmember Johnston said she was interested in the project for three reasons: She didn’t want to see more wells drilled, other extraterritorial jurisdictions like Sal Si Puedes already have city water, and the project would slightly increase the city’s customer base to add the 14 properties in question. The city or county might be able to access state or federal funds for the project, Washburn said.