City council hires city manager, approves purchase of 15-minute COVID-19 test machine

"I'm looking forward to it," Mandy Roane said after city council named her Marfa's new city manager. "I think we can do a lot of great things for Marfa.”

MARFA — The City of Marfa has appointed a new city manager, adjusted its 2020-2021 budget, discovered a sizable number of unpaid utility bills, vamped up its testing and tracing plans and even reorganized some traffic flow during its many meetings throughout its late summer budget season.

Last Friday, council, after repeated technical struggles, was able to appoint Mandy Roane as city manager. Roane comes to the position from within the city, previously serving as director of community services, library director and, when she began her city career seven years ago, as library assistant.

Speaking with her on her first full day on Tuesday, Roane said she’s excited and hopes to do a good job for the city, saying, “I enjoy the work, I enjoy working with everyone, and I’m looking forward to it. I think we can do a lot of great things for Marfa.”

Roane hoped her Marfa city experience proves to be an advantage over hiring someone from elsewhere. “Since I’ve worked at the city for a while, I’ve met a lot of people and I’m hoping that will help,” she said. “I’m not a new face, I’m a known entity.”

One revelation during the budget discussions this year was over $570,000 in unpaid, overdue utility bills from residents and commercial entities. Addressing the issue, Mayor Manny Baeza told council he would work through the overdue accounts with Utilities Clerk Lori Flores.

While City Manager Roane reported the work had begun, the city has not yet provided data on the unpaid accounts requested by The Big Bend Sentinel. “It’s not something we do, the shutting off of utilities. It’s something we try to avoid,” said Roane this week. She also pointed out that some accounts appear overdue because they are on a budget plan that charges an average monthly cost, avoiding the high and lows of bills across various seasons, for those who cannot consistently manage fluctuating bills.

The city’s contract accountant, Dan Dunlap, explained that this is not the first time the city has fallen behind on collecting utility payments. In the mid 2010s, during Dunlap’s tenure as mayor, the city got behind on collections, in part due to collections not falling under any specific job descriptions. Dunlap acted as a financial manager for the city at the time, and suggested the city could probably benefit from hiring someone to oversee a variety of financial aspects of the city.

“That’s what they’re missing, that full-time financial person that can oversee all of the financials, the utilities, the court, the accounts payable, accounts receivable,” Dunlap said. “All of those issues are being handled by individuals, no one’s looking together at the big picture.”

Speaking on the last time the city fell behind on utility bill collection, Dunlap said, “Marfa is a small town and word gets around in the community that if you’re a little short some months on paying your bills, then just don’t pay the city, because they will not do anything about it.” He believed that after the city gave leniency on bill payment due to COVID-19, the bills began piling up.

From the report he generated, Dunlap said a number of small accounts with small bills piling up, mixed with some big accounts that were delinquent on more sizable bills, were added together to create the large sum of unpaid bills. Dunlap, as accountant, has already seen payments come in since the news broke.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the city voted unanimously to hire the MCT-19 contact-tracing team at $20 per hour, with the team comprised of Don Culbertson as supervisor and Leticia Garcia and Norma Martinez as contact tracers. The project is funded by money from the Texas Division of Emergency Management, which Roane said had to be spent by the end of December. The city’s tracing program has been in the works for months, and this week, the city added a new component into the mix.

On the agenda this week, Don Culbertson proposed the city purchase an Abbot Laboratory ID Now COVID testing instrument for approximately $5,000. The machine promises to yield COVID-19 test results in under 15 minutes.

Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda asked who would ultimately own the machine, since it would be located at the Marfa Clinic, formerly known as the Marfa Country Clinic. City Attorney Teresa Todd said she would have to verify that with TDEM.

“It’s a machine that’s made for medical purposes and use. We wouldn’t want it to be used outside of our clinic,” said Valerie Culbertson, the clinic’s business manager, adding, “whether we technically own it or the city does, I’m not sure it matters much to us, at least.”

The rapid test machine would allow the clinic to rapidly identify whether a patient had COVID-19, helping distinguish it from the flu or other seasonal illnesses that are likely to arise in the coming months. It would also clear people to return to work quicker. To Councilmember Buck Johnston, it would close the loop of the city’s testing and tracing, helping someone be identified as positive within minutes and then immediately traced, rather than having to wait for testing, wait for test results and then wait some more for state tracing to take place.

While Ben-Yehuda was conflicted about spending city dollars on a machine that would be housed in a private clinic, the council ultimately agreed that it was in the best interest of the city residents. It was mentioned at the meeting that Preventative Care Health Services, the other city clinic, already had a similar machine that will be up and running in the future.

Test strips, which will be widely available for distribution in mid-October, cost around $45 a strip. Including the cost of someone to test the patient and operate the machine, a rapid test would likely cost around $70 to $80 out of pocket, or could be charged to insurance.

Ben-Yehuda asked council to add a future agenda item to consider purchasing test strips as well, so that uninsured and underinsured residents would not have to pay the individual test cost, and council approved the purchase, contingent on the city being able to use TDEM funds to pay for it.

They also voted to change traffic flow on North Gonzales Street, outside of the schools, at the request of Marfa Independent School District Superintendent Oscar Aguero. Once signs are installed, cars will only be permitted to travel north on North Gonzales, between Lincoln Street and Columbia Street, to help control the drop-offs and the release of students at school during COVID-19.

The city also extended their disaster ordinances until October 15 and decided the next city meeting agenda would include an item where council will prioritize which ordinances would be a priority for revision going forward. During discussion, some mentioned the short-term rental ordinance, while others asked for more attention on the planning and zoning ordinance revisions.