Tourism, school reopenings and families in crisis: This week at the Alpine City Council

ALPINE — From repairs and renovations to challenges brought by the coronavirus pandemic, city officials discussed a wide variety of topics when they sat down for a virtual city council meeting on Tuesday night.

Coronavirus

Near the start of the meeting, Dr. Ekta Escovar, the public health authority for Brewster County, offered some good news: Even with testing sites around every two weeks in tri-county, the number of active cases in Brewster County was way down and recovered cases have continued to grow.

Escovar said it was “fair to assume our numbers were higher” — after all, people with few to no symptoms often don’t bother to get tested — but said the developments were nonetheless a “milestone” in Alpine’s efforts to control the virus.

One hiccup in those projections, though, is school reopenings. In a lengthy instructional plan published on Friday, Alpine ISD said it planned to welcome students back in around two weeks, on August 19. Meanwhile, Escovar said, outbreaks have been reported at summer camps and at other school districts that have already reopened.

“We know children present much, much more mildly with COVID — or asymptomatically,” Dr. Escovar said. As a result, she said, Alpine — like communities across the country — is “watching with bated breath on what school reopenings are going to look like.”

She recommended the city “sit tight where we are and see how reopening goes” — noting that there’s “going to be a bit of a delay” to assess the “aftermath of school’s reopening,” as students and staff potentially spread the virus and develop symptoms over the first few weeks.

“We can only do what our governor allows us to do,” Escovar said — a reference to the changing guidelines from the state, which have often limited local authority to take precautions like shelter-in-place orders when faced with the pandemic. “Some things are out of our hands.”

“If we’ve knocked COVID down enough in our community,” she said, “then we can start making some changes.”

So, what exactly is Governor Greg Abbott allowing local city and school officials to do? It’s a little unclear, as Rod Ponton, the city attorney for Alpine explained next. In several slides entitled “More muddled/changing guidance,” he outlined the shifting directives from the state.

As recently as last month, local health authorities like Dr. Escovar were intended to have the authority to shut down in-person schooling as a precaution, according to guidance from the Texas Education Agency. Then Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued his own guidance, clarifying that health officials couldn’t close down schools prematurely, but only if an outbreak happened.

Several groups,  from state Democratic politicians to the Texas Municipal League, were quick to point out that Paxton’s guidance was only advisory — or, as Ponton’s slide presentation put it, “irrelevant.” But then, TEA threw another curveball to school officials, adapting its own guidance to match Paxton’s.

“I don’t know what the upshot is to all of this,” Ponton said. It was still a little unclear “what school boards can and can’t do” or what the city’s role was in it. Also still “up in the air” is coronavirus relief funding.

Ponton asked council if they had any questions. “No, sir,” Mayor Andy Ramos said, “it’s just a little bit confusing.” Ponton apologized but noted that the confusion was coming not from him, but from the state.

Money matters

Erik Zimmer, city manager for Alpine, outlined some of the challenges that new businesses and job-hunters in Alpine face. There are “people that move to Alpine for a variety of reasons,” who aren’t sure how to find work. There are hopeful entrepreneurs who “aren’t really in a position to go out and build a building or rent a large space.” And then there is housing, which is a “big issue from an economic development perspective,” but entrepreneurs and employees would need homes if they moved to Alpine.

For those reasons, Zimmer said he wanted to get some “thinkers” together in a workshop format. They could find grant opportunities, figure out “what businesses are needed in Alpine,” determine what lack of services (if any) is inhibiting growth and decide if new business opportunity zones in the city made sense. He also said the city was working on developing “off-the-shelf products” to aid with business development, so that if people moved to Alpine and wanted to start a new business, they wouldn’t be starting from square one.

Councilmember Ramon Olivas asked about “what the migration rate could be like in the near future or in the next couple of years in relationship to the pandemic.” After all, he noted, he’d seen reports that as coronavirus lockdowns made pricey urban living less attractive, more people were moving to small towns.

“This happens more often than we think,” Zimmer agreed. Often, he said, people come to visit from big cities like Dallas and Houston, “fall in love with the town” and start asking themselves, “What can I do to make a living?” Those circumstances, he said, were why he and other city officials wanted to better improve the perspectives for new businesses.

Councilmember Olivas noted there has recently been a “tremendous emphasis on tourism” in Alpine and throughout the region and that the pandemic — if nothing else — would at least help determine what are “the truly essential services that this community needs.”

Zimmer noted that a number of essential job positions are currently open with the city, including for a police officer and the airport supervisor. He wanted to “make sure,” he said, that “folks know there are jobs available in the city.”

Next up was Megan Antrim, the city’s director of finance. She noted that while taxes hadn’t gone up or down, numbers may have “slightly changed” due to changing property valuations. Tax values had gone from around $364 million last year to $360 million this year, in part due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, around $3.8 million in values were still being protested.

All together, the situation was a bit of “a headache,” Antrim said. Regardless, the city plans to have both its tax values and annual budget figured out by September 15.

Renovations and repairs

Randy Guzman, the gas utility director for Alpine, and Scott Perry, the director of public utilities, gave updates on city services. A recent survey of gas lines had found 126 leaks, around 84 of which had already been repaired, Guzman said. Some of the leaks aren’t urgent: they are more than 100 feet from structures, and the Texas Railroad Commission gave them three years to make repairs, he said. Regardless, he noted that disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic were causing some delays — including delaying a leak survey behind the Holland Hotel by four months.

Meanwhile, Perry said the city had a “very productive” June and July when it came to water line maintenance. The city had saved around $12,000 by doing repairs in-house rather than through contractors, he said.

Regardless, the SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) monitors, which control the overall water supply system, are badly in need of an update. They are so outdated that city workers handle the system in “manual” mode — meaning that to control city water, workers are “hand operating the system with manual control switches, around the clock.”

Later, city leaders also gave updates on city sidewalks. Namely, they plan to apply for a Texas Community Development Block Grant, which could give the city $216,000 in funding to improve sidewalks in the downtown corridor. The grant only requires a 3.5% funding match from the city, a presentation for the city council noted, while it stands to almost triple the linear footage of sidewalks — all while also approving accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Tourism

Chris Ruggia, the tourism director for Alpine, gave an overview of the situation on tourism both in Alpine and nationwide. Overall, the prognosis was grim.

Tourism was down 51% compared to last year, he said. Meanwhile, a majority of people in a recent travel survey said that in part due to the coronavirus pandemic, they’d be “unhappy” to see a tourism ad for their community. For those reasons, Ruggia said he wanted to make sure he was “promoting [tourism] responsibly” and that Alpine residents are okay with “the message that we’re putting out.”

The situation presents two challenges for Alpine. Not only is it unclear if it is “safe to travel at all,” but tourism research shows that, with many parks and businesses still closed nationwide, tourists are either cancelling trips or making shorter ones. “We have some headwinds, to say the least,” Ruggia said.

Still, it wasn’t all bad news. The recent Viva Big Bend festival, which was held virtually, went “very well,” Ruggia said. At the festival, Alpine was officially recognized as a music-friendly community — another boon for the city. And the Big Bend Ranch Rodeo, which happens this weekend, was leading to more bookings at area hotels, Ruggia said.

Meanwhile, he said the city is also establishing a “Restaurant Safety Pledge Program” and a “Lodging Safety Pledge Program,” under which restaurants and hotels could agree to enhanced safety measures in exchange for a sign advertising their relative safety. The goal, Ruggia said, is to show people that “Alpine is a place that takes visitor and customer health seriously” while also “promoting businesses and driving a little extra trade for them.”

Families in crisis

Sara Stropoli and Gina Wilcox, both of the Family Crisis Center of the Big Bend, gave some stark updates on services they are offering. The numbers of people they are helping increased 100% during the pandemic, Stropoli said — a fact due not only to growing need, but to new people moving to the area.

“People have actually moved here, feeling they would maybe be safer here than in the larger cities,” Stropoli said. “Some of them are clients now at this point.”

Stropoli said there is a “great deal” of food insecurity and that the Family Crisis Center is helping people with everything from rent and child care to car payments. But city leaders were still stuck on the 100% increase in need. Rick Stephens, a city council member, said that figure “puts me in awe.”

“You and your team do a fantastic job,” Mayor Ramos added. “Kudos to you and your entire staff.”


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