Marfa council lands on narrowly balanced budget, but not before cost-cutting debates led one council member to threaten resignation

Marfa council lands on narrowly balanced budget, but not before cost-cutting debates led one council member to threaten resignation.

MARFA — Cost-cutting measures became the focus of the Monday and Tuesday budget meetings this week, and everything from improving the city’s fire station and adding a grant writer contract position, all the way to cutting a paint job on city hall and reducing the Marfa police’s potential new vehicle fleet were up for reconsideration. In a heated moment on Monday, the city’s contract accountant Dan Dunlap’s suggestion to demolish an ailing city-owned adobe led Councilmember Buck Johnston to threaten to resign before walking out of the meeting early.

After the mayor had presented a balanced budget in August, the council made edits, adding funding to two projects that put the city into a negative balance, where expenses exceeded revenues. The two projects, both proposed by Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda, were to add a contract grant writer employee at $50,000 a year part time, and to allocate more funding than previous years toward an unrealized project to expand and update the Marfa fire station building the city owns. Those projects and others were on the chopping block on Monday and Tuesday, as the council hashed out what cuts could be made to bring the city back into good financial standings.

Council’s first cut of the meeting was to reduce the Marfa Police Department’s plan to lease new vehicles, allowing MPD to lease only two vehicles instead of replacing their whole fleet this year. Councilmember Eddie Pallarez pointed out that staggering the replacements would allow the city to see how the leasing goes, reduce the upfront costs and avoid the risk that the new vehicles would all age out of use at the same time in the future.

Immediately after that vote, council added $8,000 for new tasers. Like the current police vehicles, the city police’s tasers had been purchased in used condition when the department was launched. In a recent incident, the aging tasers failed. “We had tasers that did not work the way they should’ve worked. When we had to use one the other day, it didn’t function,” the mayor told council, saying he wanted new ones so that the city police could utilize the non-lethal tools when needed.

On Monday, council took on the Hotel Occupancy Tax fund, which brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue, but has legal limits as to where that revenue can be spent. This year, over $200,000 of that money has been allocated to the historic preservation of the Marfa and Presidio County Museum’s building, which the city owns and leases to the local museum.

Looking for cost-cutting opportunities, contract accountant Dan Dunlap suggested tearing down the ailing Marfa and Presidio County Museum building, rather than investing in a restoration project. He pointed to a house on Lincoln Street that was recently demolished, making way for the property owner to build a new house on the lot.

“They’re going to build something new in there,” he said, and meanwhile, “we’re talking about putting $250,000 to $500,000 into this place. What about just tearing it down and building something nice?”

Councilmember Johnston reacted strongly against the idea, saying, “Oh my God, I am never, ever going to be for tearing down adobes in Marfa.” The mayor said, “That’s a historic building so we can’t tear it down,” but council brought up that there were no zoning codes to preserve historic properties in Marfa.

“I would be open to reconstructing the same building out of adobe. I think there is a cost at least balance to be looked at,” Ben-Yehuda said, but Johnston wasn’t on board. “You guys are insane,” she remarked. “Marfa is known for our adobes. This is setting a precedent of tearing down our adobes.” She told her fellow electeds, “I would resign from council if y’all would decide to do this.”

“You’re talking about hotel money,” Dunlap rebutted, asking, “What you’re trying to do, is this the best way to put heads in beds, to sink half a million dollars on a building that’s shot? The thing is falling in.” The full repair of the building – which has sunk considerably as the eastern adobe wall and its foundation have been degraded by water – could come to over half a million dollars in costs. “When is this spending spree going to stop?” councilmember Raul Lara asked.

Previously, the council had paid a contractor $50,000 to repair the wall, but said that since, all of those improvements have been destroyed, in part due to the type of concrete used in the repairs.

As the discussion continued, Johnston packed up her budget worksheets and pens. “I cannot stomach the thought of tearing down an adobe, no way,” she said as she walked out of the Casner Room doors, leaving the meeting early. “This is where we tend to argue the most as a council,” Mayor Baeza said. “That is why I dislike [the Hotel Occupancy Tax fund.]” The group soon adjourned for the night, leaving the funding in place for a repair to the museum, and reconvening the following evening to continue budget discussions.

When it came time to decide how much the city wanted to spend on the fire station building, the council was torn. For the past two years, the city has allocated $82,500 toward the project, but it has gone unspent. “Every year it’s the same story. It’s one of those frustrating things,” Mayor Manny Baeza said about the project not progressing. As the council searched for more money to balance the budget, the dollar amount allocated to the fire station this coming fiscal year had risen to $172,500. Part of that would be funded by federal funds the county plans to give, but hasn’t officially assigned to the project yet.

Councilmember Ben-Yehuda, a volunteer firefighter in Marfa, advocated on behalf of the project, saying that despite not spending in earlier years, the fire department had made more progress by finally having plans drawn up. But he doubted the project would advance without the council approving the higher price tag, since contractors who might sign on would want to know the project was funded. “There’s a chance we won’t be able to pull the trigger on a contract if we don’t fully fund that, so it may take us another year, just to be totally honest.”

Fire Chief Gary Mitschke logged into the meeting via Zoom to weigh in. “I​’ll be honest with you, I was hoping the city would be a lot more receptive and helpful in getting this done, since this is the city’s property and it will be their structure when it’s completed,” he said. “I do feel that it’s your responsibility to this community to do this project. You really need to see how badly we need this space. We have equipment sitting out in the back, being wasted.” The department’s building is too small to house all of its equipment indoors, and the expansion would allow for more covered storage. “Our backup city pumper is out of commission because we cannot house it inside. This project should be your highest priority for the citizens of Marfa, it’s very important and this should have been done a long time ago in my opinion.”

“We’re having to come up with money now,” the mayor said. “I want this project to be completed, but I don’t know if it’ll be completed.” Council ultimately voted to slightly decrease the funding on the building, cutting $25,000 so that they would be allocating $147,500 this year, including county contributions. 

Mayor Pro Tem Irma Salgado urged her fellow council members to find the money to balance the budget, ultimately proposing to cut the grant writing position to $25,000 for the year. “We’re going to get less if we invest less, but that’s okay to start,” Ben-Yehuda conceded, and the council voted to half the contract position’s funding.

Streets took a back seat this year as well, which the mayor explained was because of an unexpected break of a fifty-year-old groundwater storage tank. “If that was running, we’d have half a million for streets this year, but it didn’t work that way,” Mayor Baeza said. Instead, the city will pay $375,000 for the groundwater storage tank.

Following the three nights of budget workshops in the past week, the Marfa City Council is nearing the end of the budget cycle, slating a final public hearing and vote on the city’s financial plans for 2021-2022 on Tuesday, September 28. With the budget balanced on a razor thin margin, Baeza concluded the Tuesday meeting saying, “It’s not ideal.” Councilmember Johnston added, “It just doesn’t feel good,” to which Baeza replied, “No not at all. But we are spending money on improvements, and that’s great. We need to spend that money.”