Marfa City Council slashes proposed grant writing position, passes budget and tax rate for 2021-2022

MARFA — The city council managed to move its budget up to $24,281.30 net positive at the last minute before passing its final budget for 2021-2022 on Tuesday evening. Immediately after, they passed a 13.07% decrease in the tax rate for the new fiscal year.

There was no public input at the city’s budget hearing on Tuesday, September 28, as the council held its last discussions on the city budget and the tax rate. While public participation was down, this year’s budget cycle incorporated more involvement from department heads within the city, including meetings with each to hash out what was absolutely needed for the new fiscal year.

Still, the budget was only narrowly balanced by the time Tuesday’s final budget hearing rolled around. After edits to Mayor Manny Baeza’s initial proposed budget, the council had left just $281.30.

“$281 keeps me awake at night,” City Manager Mandy Roane told council during the meeting. The narrow margin meant if any forecasted income fell short, or if unexpected expenses arose, the city would be dipping into its banked savings to cover the difference.

“It’s such a tight budget; I’m thinking about the grant position,” said Councilmember Buck Johnston. The newly budgeted position had been hotly debated throughout the budget workshops this summer.

Roane suggested that instead of adding the new grant writer position, she and City Secretary Kelly Perez could take on the responsibility for the leanly budgeted year. In that time, she hoped to meet with department heads to figure out needs, identify grants that could be applied for, and send Perez to a grant writing training.

City Attorney Teresa Todd added that the city only needed to apply to the grants, noting that many grants allow for part of the grant funds to be used for administration costs, once the grant has been received.

The proposed new position had been brought by Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda as $50,000 budgeted for a part-time grant writer for the city and earned narrow support early on, but at subsequent meetings, Mayor Pro Tem Irma Salgado proposed reducing it to $24,000 due to the tight budget constraints. 

On Tuesday, Ben-Yehuda urged, “The best time to plant a tree is yesterday. This is an investment and putting it off another year doesn’t make sense.” 

Roane told council, “It’s not the position itself, it’s the $281. It’s no cushion at all. Something is going to come up and $281 isn’t going to cover it. I know we have banked funds,” she told them, but added, “I don’t feel comfortable using the public’s money because we didn’t plan.”

The position was ultimately struck down entirely when Salgado expressed confidence that the staff could handle the grant writing in house and motioned to dash the position. The motion passed, with only Ben-Yehuda dissenting. That $24,000 gave the city a small cushion for contingencies that might arise, and will cover a small amount of depreciation expenses if unexpected costs don’t come along.

Tourism Director Abby Boyd requested a part-time assistant, but pointing at the already tight budget, council ultimately shut down the proposal, with all but Ben-Yehuda voting it down. “I know all our departments need help,” Mayor Baeza said, “but we are short staffed throughout the city.”

The council did move $5,000 from the budget for historical preservation of buildings over to professional services to help the tourism department afford cleaning its facilities which are frequently rented out.

The city passed the budget unanimously, and then voted all together on a 0.362748 tax per $100, a 13.07% decrease in the tax rate from the previous year. As valuations have climbed in the city, tax rates are able to drop while still collecting a similar or slightly smaller amount of income.

Finally, the city approved an agreement with Tyler Technologies to provide Incode software, services and support for the City of Marfa.

Kirk Cunningham of Tyler Technologies, who attended the meeting, said the company could offer improved systems for meter reading, and believes that the city’s current three-day efforts to do bank reconciliation could be sped up to just three hours with his company’s software. Billing, utilities and payroll will all be able to use the software for their work.

“It is expensive, I get that, but with software you get what you pay for,” said Roane, who worked closely with city hall employees to figure out their software needs. While she spoke with various companies, some came with bad recommendations from cities currently using them, while others were unable to demonstrate functions that the city employees knew they needed.

Ben-Yehuda asked if the city could use the system while the internet was out, since the information storage will be cloud-based, to which Cunningham said, “You’ve got to have internet connectivity to connect to the system. If you have a down time with your internet we will get involved and help.”

The contract was approved unanimously, and the new agreement is a recurring cost of $30,634 annually, with the rate fixed for three years. It also carries an upfront cost of $73,380 for implementation of the software in the city’s system.