Council extends shelter-in-place through end of April, delays election, offers utility payment plan for residents

MARFA — At a Tuesday night virtual meeting, city council voted to establish a payment plan for residents unable to pay their bills during coronavirus and formally suspended the city’s May election, delaying it until the November 3 uniform election date.

At a meeting six days earlier, on April 8, council voted to extend the shelter-in-place and disaster declaration ordinances through the end of April.

The payment extension gives city staff guidance to provide up to three months of utility payment extension, and repayment would only begin 30 days after the last city, state or county emergency order is lifted. Late fees will be waived until then as well.

City Manager John Washburn gave an example of someone with a $90 bill who negotiates a three-month repayment term – if they didn’t pay their April $90 bill, it would be spread over three months once the repayment plan started. They would pay the current month’s $90 bill, plus $30 on top of that for the next three months to settle up their April bill.

City utility bills were due yesterday, April 15, and Washburn said at the Tuesday meeting that city staff has not seen much of a decrease in on-time payment yet.

Councilmember Irma Salgado motioned to authorize the plan for an up to three-month payment extension on city utility bills, adding, “If there are customers who cannot pay the full amount in three months, it’s left up to the city manager and staff to make a payment plan.”

The flexibility is in part thanks to Councilmember Raul Lara, who said “people will be under more financial hardship than what a three-month extension allows for.” He reminded the council that when the dust begins to settle after coronavirus, whenever that is, that some residents won’t just be burdened by unpaid utility bills. Many will have been without a job, but still facing the costs of food, rent, car payments and insurance, he said.

Washburn told the council, “If you’re concerned, give us the option to go up to six months or four months.” He credited Utilities Clerk Lori Flores, saying she “knows her customers really well and knows those who are earnest and need the time.” But the council noted that the city already uses discretion with late bills and said they would be allowed that same discretion with the new repayment plan.

“None of us knows when this is going to end, but let’s look at the bright side that maybe this is lifted at the end of May,” Councilmember Buck Johnston said. “We’re giving them a budget cycle to work this out,” she said, while also “trying to be a person with a heart.”

Washburn and Johnston agreed that the motion was just a starting point. Johnston said, “If this goes on until August or September, this will be a different situation.” The motion passed.

When the council discussed the formal actions to delay the city election, City Attorney Teresa Todd dismissed some of the conspiratorial talk she had heard about the election delay. “I wanted to make clear for the public: this idea originated with the Governor of Texas.”

Abbott issued an order on March 18 that suspended parts of the election code. At the same time, he “strongly encouraged cities, school boards, water districts [and] entities that had May elections to postpone those elections until November,” Todd told the council.

Even on a logistical level, Todd pointed out that City Hall is closed, the city has social distancing that would complicate voting, and the area frequently hires older election workers who could be vulnerable to COVID-19; all of these issues complicate any effort for a May election.

Council previously voted to delay the election, but the votes this week ironed out the legalities of suspending the city election until November. Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda, who was appointed last year to fill Mayor Manny Baeza’s vacated council seat, and who is running for office this election, abstained.

Earlier in the meeting, the council considered engaging a lawyer and regulatory specialist for advice and assistance negotiating the AEP franchise agreement. Mayor Baeza recused himself from the discussion and exited the room, due to his employment by AEP.

“That seems a hundred years ago; we’re in a different place,” said Todd, reopening what has been an ongoing discussion about negotiations with AEP, which could result in a slight payment increase for residents. “This small tax on citizens two months ago didn’t seem like a big deal, but now it is.”

After discussion, the council decided to work with lawyer Lloyd Gosselink to help set franchise rates through a ballot measure and attempt a one year contract with AEP, with Councilmember Lara dissenting.

At a previous emergency city council meeting less than a week earlier, Get out the Count Coordinator Peggy O’Brien told council that participation in the census in the area was low.

“I wanted to just remind everybody that it’s also important to be counted as part of the census to get an accurate population count for coronavirus relief later,” in addition to impacting funding for schools, food, housing, employment, healthcare and more.

In Marfa, the census is not delivered to PO boxes, it is delivered on foot, but all in-person efforts have been suspended due to coronavirus. “If people can self-respond online now, it will save a lot of effort in the future,” O’Brien said.

Much discussion occurred around extending the city’s two emergency ordinances to the end of April. Supplemental declarations from the mayor were approved by the council and various pieces were formalized into the two ordinances.

Mayor Baeza explained that enforcement for the hotel and Airbnb closure is happening through residents calling into police about any operating Airbnbs. “Law enforcement is following up on the leads. They’re going to knock on resident’s doors,” and are also “telling second-homeowners to shelter in place when they’re here to quarantine for 14 days,” according to Baeza.

Asked how that’s working so far by Councilmember Natalie Melendez, Baeza said, “Some people have shown up, don’t want to quarantine for 14 days, and they turned around and went back home.” That includes a couple from Odessa and another from Houston, he said.

Police Chief Steve Marquez said, “The town’s been great about reporting to us, any time they see an out-of-state car, they want us to check up on it; we do that to ease concerns.”

Marquez also clarified that the city is in a shelter-in-place order, not a lockdown. Residents are welcome to go to the park, walk around and walk their pets.

“Shelter in place is – you only go to the store when you really have to, go to the doctor when you really have to. To exercise is okay. You can go out of the area for medicine if you need it,” he said. In contrast, “Lockdown, as I understand it, is you’re pretty much not leaving your house,” he said. The city is not under lockdown.

The city also discussed recommending masks or gloves for frontline workers, which led to a conversation about residential construction being ongoing. Todd said that before the council went down a rabbit hole, she would look into whether residential construction was covered under an essential classification. No decision was made about personal protective equipment or construction.

In the course of renewing the city’s limit where houses and apartments can only be rented to tri-county residents, Councilmember Ben-Yehuda wanted a waiver, similar to what Jeff Davis County allowed, where the city officials could make exceptions for people attempting moving to town with just cause. But councilmembers like Lara and Johnston were reluctant to allow any relaxation of rules during what they called a crucial time. Ben-Yehuda voted against the motion to incorporate that part of the mayor’s declaration into the ordinance, and the motion passed.