Coronavirus, taxes and a new hotel: This week at the Presidio County Commissioners Court

PRESIDIO COUNTY — Presidio County commissioners faced a packed agenda on Wednesday morning as they sat down to a virtual county meeting to discuss everything from county finances to coronavirus precautions. Among the highlights were:

Taxes

Presidio County commissioners voted to give themselves the option to raise revenue collections by up to 8% more next fiscal year through taxes. Though the Texas legislature previously imposed a 3.5% cap on those raises in most circumstances, that cap has exceptions for areas impacted by disasters like coronavirus.

Critically, though, commissioners made no changes to collections. And in a phone interview after the meeting, Presidio County Attorney Rod Ponton said that if anything, he expected actual tax rates to go down as average home values have gone up.

At the meeting, Ponton stressed this point — saying it was “really important” that locals understood commissioners weren’t “setting the tax rate now.”

“All options are on the table,” he said.

Still, discussions of tax rates easily segued into a conversation about rising property appraisals. Last month, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, the Presidio County Appraisal District raised average home valuations by a whopping 58% in an effort to bring their estimates closer in line with those from the state.

Ponton said that appraisers were “going after the rich out-of-towners” and that “that’s not right.”

He also described what he said was a “dirty secret” with local taxes: Because a big chunk of local taxes goes to schools, and because state officials “recapture” money from ostensibly rich districts like Marfa ISD, some of that local money would ultimately go back to Austin, anyways.

Commissioner Eloy Aranda worried about the effects of rising appraisals in Presidio. Noting that many people in Presidio are on fixed incomes — with some also currently out-of-work during the coronavirus crisis — he stressed Presidio residents “can’t afford” paying more in property taxes and urged his fellow commissioners: “We need to stop this from happening.”

In the Zoom chat, David Beebe, a Presidio County justice of the peace, wrote that residents faced a “stark choice” between paying less for services or having more services.

“Citizens need to decide whether they want low taxes and a very small governmental body, with few services and limited access,” he wrote. But if they did, it could mean liquidating assets like the golf course and providing few services “other than what is legally mandated.”

Coronavirus

A number of coronavirus updates came out of the meeting. For one, Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara gave updates on delays the county has faced in getting test results.

While the Texas Department of State Health Services had originally given her local test results within around 48 hours, that wait was now much longer, she said — reiterating points she’s made in previous interviews with The Big Bend Sentinel.

“The labs are inundated with tests,” she said. And as for contact tracers, “they’re inundated also.”

Guevara proposed establishing guidelines for Presidio County employees who may have been exposed to COVID-19, which commissioners accepted. Among the guidelines: that employees should quarantine for 14 days after potential exposure and that the county should improve face mask supplies “in the event of shortages.” She also proposed that county employees stagger their workplace breaks.

Separately, Guevara gave updates on federal coronavirus funding. In total, the county was receiving around $59,000 in CARES Act funds, of which it’s already spent around $6,000 on face masks and sanitation supplies.

Guevara emphasized to the commissioners that such money should be used on coronavirus expenses. In other words, she said, the rubric should be: “Normally we wouldn’t have made that expense, but because of coronavirus, we had to.”

A historic church

“This is really an exciting agenda item,” Judge Guevara said. After years in the works, the county was ready to officially transfer the Ruidosa Church to Friends of the Ruidosa Church, a nonprofit set up with the goal of restoring and maintaining the adobe building.

The initiative to restore the building started in 2016. At the time, Ponton said, the county wasn’t exactly sure who owned it. They eventually determined it “basically” belonged to the bishop in El Paso, who approved the idea. Years of planning paved the way for this transfer, which officially took place on Wednesday.

Commissioner Brenda Bentley asked about safeguards. Could the county be sure, she asked, that the church was “staying within the community and not being sold for profit?”

Yes, Ponton said.“That would violate their nonprofit status,” he explained. The Friends of the Ruidosa Church, he added, had been “set up for the specific purpose of restoring the church.”

A new hotel

Ruidosa church renovations were not the biggest construction project on the agenda, though. Last week, The Big Bend Sentinel reported that the City of Presidio hopes to build a new convention center to attract more visitors to the border city. As part of that project, it’s also hoping to entice a flagship hotel.

That proposed hotel development will have private financing, though Presidio has offered developers land. And at Wednesday’s meeting, Ponton — who also serves as city attorney for Presidio — gave more details on that project. The hotel would ideally be a flagship hotel like a Holiday Inn, with 80 to 100 rooms and amenities like a restaurant and a bar, he said.

In a follow-up interview, Ponton clarified that the City of Presidio had not officially issued a request for proposals for the hotel and that any specifics were still speculative. But he stressed the project could be “transformative for Presidio,” in part because it would “give other companies confidence to move in.”

At the meeting, Judge Guevara loved the idea. “I think this is exciting,” she said. “I support this.”

The City of Presidio is handling that project mostly on its own, and it wouldn’t cost the county anything, according to Ponton.

But he said the county could help by passing a resolution supporting the project, which commissioners ultimately did. Such a resolution, Ponton explained, could help the city secure a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.


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