Roads, elections and the Blackwell School: This week at Marfa City Council

MARFA — When Marfa City Council met for a virtual meeting on Monday night, the biggest news concerned contact tracing. Local leaders have spent weeks trying to set up a contact tracing program at the city — and on Monday, they got unanimous approval from city council, as The Big Bend Sentinel reported this week.

Still, contact tracing was hardly the only big-ticket item on Monday’s busy agenda.

Roads

Abiel Carrillo, a project manager at the municipal engineering firm KSA, gave an update on efforts to improve Marfa city’s roads. The company has been working with the city to evaluate Marfa’s roads and to help the city implement a 2017 plan to fix them.

In the process, KSA has rated the city’s roads either “acceptable,” “fair” or “poor” — that is, the roads “that are really, really distressed” and need to be redone, Carrillo explained at the council meeting on Monday. The company also determined which roads were not only in disrepair but also “essential links” connecting Marfa communities to state highways and broader thoroughfares. “I drove or walked all of your roads,” Carrillo told the council.

With that review process out of the way, Carrillo said it was time to take action — or at the very least, get definitive project proposals ready so that the city could apply for grants. He presented the council with a proposed schedule of repairs that runs from 2021 to 2030, along with estimated costs that, Carrillo said, tried to take inflation and disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic into account.

The city still has more work to do on that front, including public hearings on “complete streets” proposals to make the city’s roads more bike- and pedestrian-friendly. But in the meantime, Carrillo gave them some advice.

First, he recommended Marfa phase out doing repair works on already doomed streets and instead focus on replacing broken roads and maintaining fair or acceptable ones. Doing so would be cheaper for the city in the long run, he explained, while doing renovations on “poor” condition roads was a mostly futile exercise anyways.

Second, he suggested that the city focus on improving drainage and sustainability, not least because flooding on roadways could accelerate their deterioration. To do this, he suggested the city add bioswales to some medians and even consider making some roads less wide.

“A vast majority of your roads are very wide,” Carrillo added — noting that one stretch of Highland near the courthouse was around 80 feet across. “If you cut that down to almost half,” he said,” you would still have parking and a very wide driving lane.” Besides, there’d also be more room for green infrastructure like bike lanes and bioswales.

Elections

On Monday, Marfa City Council voted to put Marfa utilities on the ballot. Specifically, voters will be asked whether the city should take back jurisdiction over its electrical utilities from American Electric Power, which currently has say over Marfa’s utility rates.

As The Big Bend Sentinel has previously reported, some city leaders believe residents would be better served if city leaders — and not a private company — had more control over electric utilities and rates and weren’t locked into a longtime deal with AEP. Mayor Manny Baeza, who works for AEP, recused himself from that discussion and the vote.

Separately, the council also voted on whether to formally withdraw Councilmember Natalie Melendez’s name from the November ballot. Melendez previously told the council she wanted to withdraw her candidacy, noting that it had been a “hard year.”

Irma Salgado made the motion, but there was a problem: with the council not wanting to see Melendez leave, no one else (besides Melendez) was initially willing to second the motion.

“I’m not seconding it,” Councilmember Buck Johnston joked. “Sorry.” Councilmember Salgado stressed that “we don’t want you to leave.”

“We’ve just got to go forward with it,” Melendez protested. And eventually, Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda reluctantly seconded the motion. “I’m touched,” Melendez said of the hesitance to let her go.

Contracts

City leaders on Monday considered contracts for debt collections and IT work. First, there was the potential contract with Republic Recovery Services, which would help the city collect on unpaid bills from Marfa EMS.

Marfa city leaders have been debating changing how they charge and collect for local EMS services, which can include everything from emergency medical care at homes to hospital transits. In the meantime, the city has also struggled with unpaid bills. On Monday, Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda estimated the city was losing out on around 50% of its possible EMS revenue, while Mayor Manny Baeza agreed it was a “substantial amount.”

With a Republic contract, the company would charge the city a $1500 set-up fee, plus 30% of whatever money Republic was able to collect. That would mean, city attorney Teresa Todd explained, that the city would get “70% of something we’ve been making zero percent off of over the past few years.” She also noted that the company had come “highly recommended,” including by the legal firm that handles Marfa’s taxes.

Still, there were some snags. Bert Lagarde, the Marfa EMS director, wasn’t there to weigh in on the contract. Meanwhile, Councilmember Johnston noted that there was nothing on Republic’s website on its proposal indicating whether it had previously worked with municipalities.

Rather than rejecting the contract or tabling the measure — which could have seen the city start the contract process all over again — they instead decided to sign a one-year contract with Republic as a kind of trial run. With that change, the proposal passed unanimously.

The city also considered setting up a contract with Nectar Computers in Alpine for IT services — and there was little hesitation. Councilmember Salgado noted that The Get Go, where she also works, uses Nectar and that it works well, while Councilmember Melendez agreed that many businesses in Marfa have used Nectar’s IT services “at one point or another.”

Councilmember Johnston said she’d also had good experiences with the company, and Mandy Roane, the director of community services, said Nectar could likely serve as an all-purpose resource for city IT needs. In the end, the council also voted unanimously to approve that contract.

Blackwell School

For almost 60 years — from 1909 until 1965 — the Blackwell School served as a segregated school for Latino children in Marfa. That year, courts ordered public schools desegregated, and the Blackwell building fell into disuse and decline.

For over a decade, the Blackwell School Alliance has worked to preserve the history and buildings of the former Blackwell School. And now, they’re hoping to turn the property into a National Historic Site, a designation also held by the former Fort Davis.

Gretel Enck, president of the Blackwell School Alliance, spoke about these efforts at Monday’s meeting. She said the alliance had worked to “document and promote this important part of Marfa history” but had realized that the Blackwell School was “much more than a local story”: It also told a “national story” about discrimination and racial injustice in the United States.

The Blackwell School alliance has already been working with officials like Congressman Will Hurd to “begin the process of turning the Blackwell School over to the National Park Service,” Enck told council members. She asked that city council sign a letter in support of those efforts.

“This has a lot of support from the immediate family of former students,” she said, “to ensure this lives on in perpetuity.” She cited research showing that for every $1 the federal government spent on national park lands, $4 worth of economic value was generated for nearby communities. “That’s job creation, tourism and goods and services,” she explained.

“This is a different kind of tourism,” she added. “It will attract history-minded tourists, as well as providing an additional benefit to tourists that already come.”

The city decided to sign a letter of support for Blackwell — and to go a step further. “I would say let’s all sign it,” Councilmember Ben-Yehuda said. “I think that would be great.”

Police

A number of law enforcement items also made it onto the agenda. First, Marfa agreed to renew jail and dispatch contracts with the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office, which allows Marfa police to place people in the county jail and respond to 911 calls made to PCSO.

During his council updates, Marfa Police Chief Steve Marquez also had some news: Two officers, Frank Hernandez and Anahi Garcia, had attended a crisis intervention training hosted by Brewster County. The training, he said, would help them better respond to tense situations.

In an interview on Tuesday, Marquez cited protests over the recent killings of people of color as evidence for why such training was “really important.” He said the crisis intervention training was part of a broader effort to train Marfa police officers to handle tense situations, including previous de-escalation trainings.

“Right now, with everything that’s going on, I think it’s something my guys should all take advantage of,” he said of the trainings. “It’s something that the department as a whole can benefit from.


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