City extends emergency order, closes pool and continues financial relief as coronavirus drags on

MARFA — Council acted at a quick pace Tuesday evening, due to technical struggles that forced the meeting to occur in 40 minute increments on Zoom, recessing and returning repeatedly throughout the night. In a meeting with a wide range of topics, the local disaster declaration was extended 30 days, a parade was approved for high school seniors, the city pool was shuttered for the summer, and those who pay bills to the city were granted an extended grace period.

At the top of the meeting, City Attorney Teresa Todd advised the city to separate what is state-mandated from internal city matters in its orders going forward. Council voted together to continue the City of Marfa’s disaster declaration for an additional 30 days after the May 12 meeting.

After technical difficulties took the meeting offline, council reconvened on Zoom once more, and unanimously endorsed approval of a parade of high school seniors this Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Marfa. “We’re just trying to do little things to make this special because many of our students, not just seniors, have lost certain memories because of this,” Superintendent Oscar Aguero told the council. More information about the parade and subsequent “prom on the porch” can be found on page 1 of this issue.

It was also announced that Nicki Ittner has been hired by the city as the new programming librarian. Ittner is working on her master’s in library sciences, with a focus on children’s programming. For years, “she has been our super volunteer,” former library director and current Director of Community Services Mandy Roane said of Ittner.

Short-term rentals were previously reclassified as residential garbage beginning March 19 and lasting through 30 days after emergency orders are lifted. Council was resistant to revert short-term rentals back to commercial trash rates yet, saying those businesses need more time. The city then agreed to waive late fees for city water, sewer and gas utilities for the same length of time. The reopening of city buildings was then pinned to the same schedule. Phased reopenings for each location may be revisited at the council’s meeting later this month or on June 9.

After deliberation, the council made a difficult decision to keep the pool closed for the summer. Councilmember Buck Johnston shared advice from Dr. Ekta Escovar that reopening the pool would likely not be safe, suggesting it should remain closed for the season. Though the pool itself is treated with chemicals that may deter the spread of the coronavirus, its handrails, shared restrooms and potential coughing from water inhalation could make spread worse.

According to Johnston, the City of Alpine may close their pool as well, pending a vote from their council. Marfa has roughly $22,000 budgeted for the pool, which Councilmember Natalie Melendez suggested could potentially be allocated toward digital summer programming.

“I can’t advocate for us keeping the pool open this summer, knowing our budget will be taking a huge hit,” Johnston said. A lot of effort has been put toward revitalizing the pool and its programming, but  “we’re here for the safety of our citizens,” Councilmember Raul Lara said. “COVID-19 came at us and we have to do everything we can to protect our citizens.”

Next up, EMS Director Bert Lagarde said the city’s EMS billing company, EMERGICON, recommended the city raise EMS transport fees from $17 per mile to the maximum allowable $23 per mile. “We’re charging the lowest rate for advanced life support and the lowest rate for basic life support,” Lagarde told the council. The city charges lower rates than most cities for oxygen supplies and welfare check-ins and has not revised its rates for at least six years.

City Manager John Washburn suggested throwing out the area’s highest and lowest rates and averaging the remaining rates to get a middle-of-the-road fee schedule for the council to vote on.

“I just hate to put a charge on a service that I think is so wonderful that we can offer to our citizens and elderly,” Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda said, preferring that residents “don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and get medical professionals there in minutes.” City staff will look into any potential changes and make recommendations.

The final new order of business was the Rio Grande Council of Governments proposing the city pay half the price for a banner promoting the census. Council approved the hanging of a census banner, as long as it was down before Marfa Lights Festival’s banner is hung this fall, and the city would only pay for 50 percent of the banner if it said “Marfa” and was bilingual.