Marfa council adds grant writer job and bulks up fire station funds in city budget, sets hearing for tax decrease

MARFA – Marfa’s elected officials had their first shot at responding to Mayor Manny Baeza’s proposed 2021-2022 budget at a meeting on Monday night, where they amended line items to create a new grant writing position and to increase spending on the renovation of the city’s fire house. At the same meeting, they adopted the 2021 tax rate.

Council also debated the future of road improvements and the potential to levy local sales taxes, though they delayed action on either. Finally, the council set a hearing for the proposed tax rate, which is set to decrease city property tax rates slightly if council approves it later this month.

Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda drove much of the conversation on Monday night, proposing a handful of changes to his fellow council members. That evening, Ben-Yehuda, who also serves as a volunteer firefighter for the city, asked council to bump up the funds allocated to renovate the city’s iconic pink fire station. While renovations have been discussed, and budgeted for, for years, the project has been slow going since it has primarily relied on volunteer efforts to draw up plans and seek bids.

The mayor said the money to fund the project had “been carrying over for years, and we asked them to please start so we don’t use it for something else.” Ben-Yehuda said the fire department was “ready to move” on the project, but explained why he hoped the funding could increase this year. 

While $82,500 was already put toward the project, the council member believed the costs would exceed that, and the small budget would fail to cover the project, even if it was phased. He estimated the project could go as high as $200,000, and said the department had hesitated to send the plans out to contractors for bids, “when we don’t have the money to actually pull the trigger on that,” he said.

Councilmember Buck Johnston and Mayor Pro Tem Irma Salgado were reluctant to add more funds to the project, noting that it would be easy to add the money, but harder to adjust it down later in the budget negotiations if money was needed elsewhere. “I think you stick with the $82,500,” Johnston said.

On a narrow vote, councilmembers Raul Lara and Eddie Pallarez sided with Ben-Yehuda, pushing the funding to $122,000 for fire station renovations. Ben-Yehuda said, “$122,000 doesn’t get us all the way but we can seriously begin with a contractor and say we’re ready to go.”

Ben-Yehuda also advocated for a new position in the city’s ranks, a contract employee that would be a municipal grant writer that seeks funds for city projects. The council member suggested $50,000 for the part-time position, which could be parsed out as a $50 per hour role working 20 hours a week.

The employee would go after at least one infrastructure grant, Ben-Yehuda proposed, which he hoped would bring in more than six figures in funding, along with additional grants that could help the Emergency Management Services department, fire department and others that could benefit from grant writing. “I think it will be a money maker,” he told the council.

The other elected officials were amenable to the proposal, and City Manager Mandy Roane weighed in. “We definitely need help. I can’t do all the grants on top of all my administrative work,” Roane said. “As far as a quarter million dollar grant, it’s a lot of paperwork, and we don’t have hands on deck to do all of it.”

Councilmember Pallarez heartily supported the proposal, believing the position would bring in more money for the city than the position would cost. When it came up for a vote the council agreed, unanimously approving the contract position for 2021-2022.

Council also attempted to wrangle some of the costs proposed in the city budget. Under the mayor’s initial proposal, part of the city’s costs –– including big ticket capital outlays on equipment, vehicles and large renovation projects –– were going to be covered using money already saved up in the city’s bank account, rather than revenues generated in the new fiscal year.

In an effort to decrease that reliance on banked money, council proposed the city finance some of its planned equipment purchases, which include a new fleet vehicle and skid steer for the public works department and a mini excavator for the city’s water department.

“As we know, our infrastructure is in need of repair,” Mayor Baeza said in support of the purchases. However, the mayor agreed with council that if the city could finance those purchases instead of buying the equipment outright, the city could save money this fiscal year and defer some of those costs into following years.

In the mayor’s budget proposal, major city street projects took a back seat after issues with a city groundwater storage tank led the mayor to allocate funding to remedy the water issue over roads.

Last year, the city paid Texas-based KSA Engineers to generate engineering plans and designs for major overhauls of Russell and Mesa streets in city limits. While the designs are expected to arrive “any day now,” Ben-Yehuda said, “We basically have no money allocated to a major project.” 

The projects could face a year of stagnation after the engineering plans arrive though. Baeza explained, “We came upon that groundwater storage tank and had to allocate all that money,” adding, “I’d rather have citizens complaining about roads than water.”

The mayor estimated the two road projects would cost the city $800,000 to $1,000,000, but didn’t nix the 2021-2022 road plans altogether. The mayor and council agreed to reconsider roads budgeting later this month after numbers arrived from KSA Engineering, scheduling a special meeting just to hear from the roads experts.

That wasn’t the only meeting planned during the Monday budget workshop. As part of the budget season, the city set a date to consider and adopt their new city property tax rate.

Due to a reduced debt load over the past year, the city’s calculations to find their tax rate options gave a startling conclusion. The “no-new-revenue” rate is a tax rate that would bring in the exact same amount of tax revenue as the previous year and the “voter approval rate” is the tax rate the city can levy that allows for up to a 3.5% increase on the maintenance and operation rate. If the city increases the tax rate beyond that number, city residents can call for an election where they can roll back the tax rate.

The math was clear: the city’s voter approval rate was less than the no-new-revenue rate, meaning they would have to set the rate at the voter approval rate or risk a rollback election. Put plainly, “We’re going to have to run in the paper a notice of a hearing on a tax decrease,” City Contract Accountant Dan Dunlap told council. “You may never see this again.” 

The council proposed a tax rate of $0.362748 in tax per $100 in value, going slightly under the voter approval rate of $.362749 per $100 so that they can avoid any risk of slight miscalculations leaving them vulnerable to a rollback election.

When the council remarked they were glad to run the public notice that taxes would be going down, Dunlap, a former mayor of Marfa, replied, “Of course, what politician wouldn’t be?” The council even agreed to run the notice that taxes would go down two times, for good measure. 

The council set a public hearing on the 2021-2022 proposed budget for September 28 at 5:30 p.m., where Marfa residents can weigh in before the council approves the final budget. Immediately after, council will hold a public hearing to adopt the 2021 proposed tax rate, on which residents can also provide input.