County puts horse race betting on the ballot, taps grants for infrastructure and border enforcement

PRESIDIO COUNTY — Presidio County voters will have the chance to approve or reject the legalization of horse race betting in the county after commissioners voted last Wednesday to put it on the ballot this November. Commissioners moved in lockstep to advance a ballot measure on horse racing, and the elected officials also learned more about grant funds and historical markers at the latest commissioners court gathering after press time on Wednesday, June 9.

After hearing a proposal from Wisdom Advisers — a company out of Dallas that wants to build a horse racetrack in Presidio — at the last commissioners court meeting, the court voted to take its first step toward horse race betting in county limits.

Per state code, county residents are the final voice on allowing or barring “pari-mutuel betting and wagering,” so commissioners voted to put the initiative on the ballot. “This is a good thing for Presidio, a very good thing,” Commissioner Eloy Aranda remarked. “It’s an attraction and it brings a lot of development to the city and county.”

Jose Valdez from Wisdom Advisers told County Judge Cinderela Guevara that if the county voters approve pari-mutuel betting, the project will be off to the races. Guevara told commissioners that if voters approve, the state would then need to issue a license, and then Valdez said the process will go “really fast, maybe four to five months and it should all be completed,” Guevara explained.

Ahead of the vote to create the ballot initiative, Commissioner Buddy Knight said, “It’s pretty obvious that we have to put a track in Presidio. There should be quite a bit of revenue for the county and obviously the local people of Presidio, jobs and all that. But we’re just in the first steps.” After talking to Valdez on a few occasions, he said he was comfortable with their plan, “but I think the first step, and obviously this is it – let’s let the people of Presidio County decide if they want to do this.”

The ballot initiative was unanimously agreed to, with Commissioner Jose Cabezuela joining Aranda and Knight, while Commissioner Brenda Bentley was absent.

At that same meeting, commissioners heard about opportunities to tap into two federal grant funds. The first was a new Stonegarden grant approval that will award $196,695 to the county for immigration enforcement by the sheriff’s office, with no match required.

Those funds can be spent on officer overtime or benefits, fuel, vehicle maintenance, night vision equipment and other costs relating to providing border security work that assists U.S. Border Patrol with enforcement.

County Auditor Patty Roach said that in a departure from past Stonegarden grants, this year’s grant, which runs through February 2022, will let the county hire two temporary deputies by using Stonegarden funds to pay their salaries. The county would be on the hook only for paying those employees’ benefits out of pocket, at most $6,684, Roach told commissioners. They swiftly approved the budget amendment to allow the addition of those benefit funds.

Commissioners at the meeting also voted to allow the county to apply for Department of the Treasury coronavirus local fiscal recovery funds, part of the American Relief Funds. The county qualifies for a sum of $1,302,200 in coronavirus recovery funds through December 2024.

While the county won’t need to contribute any of its own funds as a match, Roach said due to the size and complexity of this award, “We probably need to consider a grant administrator for it.” Fortunately, it likely won’t cost the county any of its own dollars, since Roach said they can use the relief funds themselves to hire a grant administrator. 

“There’s still a lot of uncertainty with these monies. We haven’t gotten final treasury regulations. Management and procedures will probably mirror what FEMA does, and that’s pretty tight and specific,” which the auditor said was a prime reason to hire someone to oversee the finances.

“This is a big chunk of change for the county, and it can be used in a lot of different ways. Some of it is infrastructure, but it’s pretty specific what types of infrastructure you can use it on. We can also set up a grant program, so then if you get into a program where we’re granting funds to sub-recipients then that gets even more involved.”

After hearing infrastructure was one way to spend the money, Commissioner Aranda said an investment in water and sewer for the city of Presidio would be a worthy cause. 
At some point the commissioners will need to discuss how they would like to utilize the funds, “but at least let’s get that money in our hot little hands,” Roach said, recommending commissioners approve the county’s move to apply for the funding, which they did, unanimously.

As the meeting neared its end, Arian Velasquez-Ornelas, the president of the Presidio Convention and Visitor Bureau, made a proposal for two historical markers in Marfa be relocated to the city of Presidio.

The first marker under discussion was the “Presidio County” marker, which was placed on Highway 90, half a mile east of Marfa, in 1936 and commemorates the formation of Presidio County. It reads “Formed from Bexar County created January 3, 1850, organized March 13, 1875. So named for the early ‘Fortress garrisoned by soldiers.’ Erected for the protection of the Big Bend missions. County seat Fort Davis, 1875, Marfa, since 1885.”

The second was the “Presidio – Oldest Town in America” marker, which is placed next to the Presidio County marker, just outside of Marfa. It was added in 1961 and claims that the city of Presidio is America’s oldest town, reading, “At confluence of Concho and Rio Grande Rivers. A settlement for over 10,000 years. Site of first recorded wagon train crossing into Texas, December [year illegible], headed by Antonio de Espejo.”

Velasquez-Ornelas said, “We’re here to present that to the commissioners court to hopefully have your support to have those markers placed in their proper location.” If agreed to, the group hopes the “Presidio – Oldest Town in America” marker could be placed in Saint Francis Plaza in Presidio, “because it is kind of the oldest part of the community,” she explained.

While Commissioner Aranda remarked he had no problem with changing the marker locations, he and Judge Guevara said they wanted to visit with the county’s historical commission first and see if the state historical commission would need to be involved. Guevara proposed duplicating the markers in Presidio, “instead of defacing the ones already here.”