Marfa plans for tighter 2020 budget

MARFA – City council fine-tuned the mayor’s proposed 2020-2021 city budget during a Tuesday evening meeting this week. Among the changes, the council proposed additional money be put toward road improvements, voted on a pay raise for one employee and revealed plans for filling the upcoming vacancy of city manager. The proposed budget estimates that revenues will be down more than half a million dollars this year, and sets expenses almost $1.4 million lower than last year.

In his original budget, Mayor Manny Baeza proposed eliminating the fairly new position of community services director as a cost saving measure. And while council supported it, Councilmember Buck Johnston asked that some sort of role be created that supports and assists the city manager. Mandy Roane, the current community services director, is likely headed out of the position soon, so eliminating the role was an easy choice.

“Unofficially we’ve chosen who our next city manager will be, so unofficially we ought to decide or communicate with that person to find out what other –– now’s the time. Is Mandy on the line?” said Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda. He was alluding to council considering Roane to replace outgoing City Manager John Washburn, and asking her to weigh in on whether she would need help in the new role, should council hire her for it.

Roane said that at the moment, she was fine and filling both roles, but was relying more on administration in each department to pick up the slack. However, she did think she might need more help when departments are having to do public-facing work again and administrative work at the same time. “What will that look like when we’re fully open again, full throttle?” Roane asked.

Council chose to revisit the idea of adding a part-time role, and said Roane will be on the city agenda for the city manager position soon.

Council also cut $15,000 that was proposed for use in the law enforcement department after deciding that the cost of converting a city vehicle into a fourth law enforcement vehicle was too high, at an estimated $19,000.

Instead, the department will continue to have three vehicles and four officers. “We never have four officers on duty at the same time,” Ben-Yehuda pointed out, with Councilmember Raul Lara saying he’d prefer to spend $15,000 elsewhere.

While COVID-19 effects have impacted projected revenues and caused the city to tighten its belt, there was at least one benefit to the budget from a COVID-related change. Most in-person trainings for city staff have shifted online, meaning the city will be able to reduce travel expenses, lodging expenses and spending on training fees.

Across the board, the mayor’s proposed budget did not have any room for raises for city staff this year. The belt-tightening meant last year’s pay increases would have to suffice. As of 2019, city employees are paid a minimum of $15 an hour. However, council stepped in Tuesday, with Councilmember Johnston proposing one change: a pay raise for Edward Cobos, who has handled administration at the nutrition center, as well as overseeing its kitchen.

Since the pandemic, the center has dealt with an unprecedented number of senior citizens relying on the city program to feed them through meals-on-wheels. “We have an employee going above and beyond, serving more meals than ever before. I am asking that we raise his hourly rate. It’s the only time I’m asking this,” said Johnston. Council unanimously agreed to revise Cobos’ pay in the proposed budget from $15 to $18 an hour.

Led by Ben-Yehuda, council also increased money allocated in the budget for road improvements, ambitiously choosing to use banked funds from a 2017 tax note to pay for pavement projects on Mesa Street and Russell Street, two main roads in town. The decision to address both roads in one year will save the city some engineering, administrative and contracting costs by bundling the two projects together.

Wrapping up the discussion for the night, Johnston suggested that council consider reinstating late fees for bill payments, which were put on hold when COVID-19 began this spring. On the budget, late fees are estimated to bring in about $25,000 in revenue every year. The next special meeting and budget workshop for city council is on August 20, and another is set for August 25.