Mayor Baeza introduces 2021-2022 Marfa city budget proposal

Mayor Baeza introduces 2021-2022 Marfa city budget proposal

MARFA — Marfa Mayor Manny Baeza proposed the 2021-2022 city budget on Tuesday. After a belt tightening budget in 2020, the mayor proposed a budget that forecasted higher sales tax and hotel occupancy tax revenues and addressed various city properties — including the Marfa and Presidio County Museum building, the swimming pool, city vehicles and equipment — that have deteriorated in recent years.

Overall, the budget estimated $6,909,041 in revenue and $8,560,513 in expenses, relying on $1,652,500 from the city’s previously banked funds to make up the difference.

To advance through the budget process, the council scheduled budget workshops for Thursday, September 9, at 6 p.m. and Wednesday, September 15, at 6 p.m. The workshops will open the floor to the public to give feedback on the budget proposal, and council members will weigh in and make any changes they see as necessary. The council must pass a final budget by September 30, along with a tax rate that supports the fiscal plan.

Baeza has been responsible for proposing city budgets since 2019 when he first stepped into the role of mayor. In 2019, he presented a narrowly balanced budget, calling on council to find more revenue or more cuts to the proposal. The following year was even tougher, as the city was five months into the pandemic, with the breadth of its impacts on city revenues still unpredictable. The mayor and council tightened the budget down in response.

This year’s budget proposal meeting started on a positive note, as the mayor shared that sales tax revenue in 2020 exceeded all expectations, even under the pressures of the pandemic. In 2020, they made over $257,000, and for 2021, the mayor forecast growth to $342,000 in sales tax revenues to the general fund.

Marfa Police Department

Under the mayor’s proposal, the city would begin leasing vehicles for the Marfa Police Department, retiring and selling off the current fleet of civilian-grade cars that were retrofitted as police vehicles. While the vehicles were affordable when the police force was reconstituted in 2017, Marfa Police Chief Steve Marquez said the cars’ retrofitting is blowing out the alternators, killing the car batteries and the turbo is going out on them.

“If we replace all of them we’d go with five vehicles, but we’re talking about three to four. That’s up to council,” Marquez said. The cost for leasing four vehicles is $55,000 annually for five years. “At the end of the five years they would be ours,” Baeza explained.

Councilmember Eddie Pallarez said replacing them all at the same time could lead to the cars aging and failing around the same time, which would bring bigger lump costs. Instead, he suggested replacing two or three in the coming year, and then replacing the others later. “If we stagger the vehicles, we’d have a better fleet,” he said.

Marfa Activity Center and Nutrition Center

Nutrition Center Director Ed Cobos’ request from last year to add a second full-time employee was heard, and Baeza added it to the 2021-2022 budget proposal. Growth in revenues and the client list for the center’s meals program for Marfa elders drove the mayor to push for an expansion in staffing.

In the other half of the MAC Building, the faltering swimming pool was unable to open this year due to needed repairs and maintenance. Councilmember Buck Johnston has taken the lead on efforts to restore or replace the swimming pool, and Mayor Baeza took her recommendation of adding $14,000 in professional services to get a feasibility study on the city pool.

The cost of the study would be double that, but Johnston is hoping her fellow Parks and Recreation board members will commit to paying the other half of the cost. The study would talk to stakeholders, look at the MAC facility, give three different ideas of how the pool could be corrected and, crucially, be a document that could help the city secure grant funding to repair or replace the pool. “It will tell us whether to shut down that pool and start a new one, or fix it,” said Baeza. 

Dan Dunlap, a former city mayor who contracts with the city for accounting services and also helps out with pool maintenance, updated the city on the recent effort to check the condition of the pool. Dunlap said the pool was “running great” citing minimal leaking and a smoothly operating pump. “It’s run a week, nonstop. It doesn’t trip out anymore.” Unfortunately, he said, the solar panels that heat the pool are still leaking. “That’s probably one thing that needs to be redone,” Dunlap said. The restroom facilities also have been a longstanding issue, which Councilmember Pallarez brought up as another cost that would come if the pool is restored for public use.

Fire station

For years the city has allocated funds to a facility upgrade at the Marfa Fire Station, but work has been slow to progress since plans have been drawn up on a volunteer basis. Baeza proposed rolling over the unspent $82,500 from previous years, but Councilmember and volunteer firefighter Yoseff Ben-Yehuda remarked that funding would need to be well over that to actually see the project through. He asked the council to consider adding $40,000 more, something that will be discussed at a future budget workshop this month. 

“$10,000 of donations after the Judd fire have been put toward the building improvement,” said Ben-Yehuda. Since the city-owned building might be considered historic, the mayor mused, it could potentially be paid for partially with hotel occupancy tax funds.

Hotel occupancy tax fund

The city’s tax revenues from hotel and short-term rental occupancies have continued to balloon in the past year, despite the council’s modest budgeting of only $400,000 expected during the 2020 fiscal year because of the pandemic. Defying those expectations, the city has brought in nearly $710,000 this fiscal year. “Marfa never slowed down in the pandemic,” Baeza remarked.

With $700,000 budgeted for the new fiscal year, Baeza’s plan is to spend the bulk of the money on historical preservation, slotting $221,620.11 into that line item. The city owns the building that houses the Marfa and Presidio County Museum and Baeza said that the facility is at risk of deteriorating beyond repair due to too-small gutters that have channeled water against an exterior wall and the foundation.

“Mayor, you’re right,” said Councilmember Raul Lara. “Let’s finally fix that museum once and for all.” Two years ago, the city had allocated $50,000 to repair the eastern wall of the structure, but the limestone plaster has since crumbled as water damage continued to pelt the building.

“We’ve got to do it because Brit [Webb] wanted it done too,” said Irma Salgado, referencing the late council member she served with years ago. “The first thing we need to do is stabilize the building.”

Other capital outlays that could use HOT funds included a new ramp at the USO’s side entrance, bathrooms at the garden pavilion next to the USO and a carport for the city’s rental car fleet.

City vehicles

Many departments received allocations to update the aging fleet of city vehicles. City Roads Supervisor Albert Dominguez explained that $50,000 of his department’s capital outlay budget would go toward replacing a vehicle that shuts off when it idles too long at a stop sign and can’t reliably drive long distances. His department also requested $100,000 for a Bobcat with all the attachments to carry out road repairs. While in support of it, Councilmember Ben-Yehuda also wanted to hear a more detailed plan of how the equipment would be used, and Johnston asked that it be on a maintenance plan if purchased.

The gas department also asked for $55,000 toward a pickup truck. “Everyone’s getting a pickup this year,” Lara said. “We needed to update our fleet.”

One of the largest expenses in outlay was $375,000 for an ambulance in the EMS department, though EMS Director Bert Lagarde explained at least part of that could potentially be subsidized by a grant.

City staff pay

Finally, Baeza said that there would be a deeper look into the salaries and hourly pays of city staff at a budget workshop. In a brief explanation, he proposed a 3% cost of living increase for all non-salaried employees of the city. He also budgeted higher pay for some hourly workers in the gas, water and sewer departments, offering them an opportunity to see raises if they receive certain licenses and training throughout the year.

“There’s money in the pot. If an employee is at $15 an hour – if they do pass their trainings, they’ll be able to get a raise, instead of just having them think there’s no room for advancement,” Baeza said, with Councilmember Salgado adding, “And that we retain them,” hoping higher pay would reduce turnover among the departments.

Setting the tax rate

Presidio County Tax-assessor/collector Natalia Williams also presented the various tax rates the city council would be able to approve this year, from one that would generate no new revenue, to one that would go for the maximum percent increase allowed without opening the city up to the potential of residents petitioning for its lowering, anywhere above 3.5%.

The no-new-revenue tax rate is $0.364501 per $100 of value, while the voter-approval tax rate is actually slightly lower at $0.362749 per $100. “The percent increase from no-new-revenue to the proposed tax rate is -.48% because of reduced debt load,” explained Dunlap.

This year, the mayor is proposing the city go to the 3.5% increase to the maintenance and operations rate, which, Dunlap explained, would raise -$1,931.24 in additional taxes. “You’re not increasing the tax rate,” he told council, should they go with the mayor’s proposal. Property taxes at the 3.5% voter approval rate in 2021-2022 would raise $287,978 according to the mayor.

On September 9, the council will meet to pass the proposed tax rate, and on September 14, there will be a public hearing for the tax rate at 5:30 p.m. for residents to ask questions or weigh in. The tax rate will be adopted later this month after the final budget has been passed.