Water, building improvements hot topics at American Rescue Plan funds workshop

MARFA — The Presidio County Commissioners Court met in a special session last week to discuss the use of American Rescue Plan funds granted to the county by the federal government. The American Rescue Plan was greenlit by the Biden administration in March 2021 and is perhaps best known among taxpayers as the legislation responsible for those $1400 stimulus checks. Now, that stimulus is starting to roll out to local governments. 

Presidio County was awarded $650,000 in stimulus to be used in fiscal year 2021-22 and anticipates another round of $650,000 stimulus in FY 2022-23 for a grand total of $1.3 million. That’s a significant amount of extra cash for a county that — despite its massive size and bustling tourism economy — ranks among the state’s poorest. 

County Auditor Patricia Roach explained that the $1.3 million figure was derived from the county’s revenue loss due to COVID-19 in 2020, calculated at $1.1 million. The White House’s official ARP fact sheet explains that these funds are intended for “maintaining vital services” through the aftershocks of budget shortfalls caused by the pandemic. 

Roach and Presidio County Attorney Rod Ponton were on hand to help commissioners brainstorm with a realistic understanding of what these federal funds could be used for. Precinct 2 Commissioner Eloy Aranda was quick to remind those present of a common refrain among Presidio County residents: “We pay our taxes, but our roads are in bad shape.” 

Roach and Ponton explained that the use of these funds for road maintenance within city limits would be a tough sell, as the funds are explicitly marked for county use. A grant commissioner would be appointed down the line to help the commissioners better access the funding.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Buddy Knight brought up the practical concerns of new roofing and climate-controlled storage for the county jail and courthouse, where the bulk of the county’s records are kept. “It’s our responsibility as a county to keep those records safe,” he said. 

County Clerk Florcita Zubia echoed his concerns. “Some of our books are just coming apart,” she said. “And [these records] can decide whether you get a loan or a house.”

Discussion of water infrastructure took up the bulk of the meeting. County Judge Cinderela Guevara floated the idea of a storage tank for potable water, citing the problems navigated by rural communities like Candelaria, plagued by chronic water shortages. 

Commissioner Aranda brought in outside experts to discuss the possibility of using the funds to extend water infrastructure from the city of Presidio to Presidio-Lely Airport, which has been a headache for the county and city government for years. “We do so many lifesaving flights out of Presidio,” said Presidio County Airport Manager Chase Snodgrass. “Right now we’re just hauling water from the city, and it’s not potable water. The airport, to fully function, is going to need water.”

That would open up possibilities for a customs office to support more international traffic at the airport and a medical triage station to serve patients waiting for flights or long-distance ambulance journeys to medical care. 

“The biggest expense is just the length,” engineer Ramon Carrasco reminded the commissioners. The piping itself is one of the many products that saw its price balloon during the pandemic, and the existing water infrastructure is about 1.3 miles short of reaching the airport.

Trey Gerfers, chairman of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District, closed out the meeting by imploring commissioners to consider “big, bold projects” alongside overdue maintenance concerns. “These are once-in-a-lifetime funds coming at us,” he said. “How can we be ready for these huge droughts that are coming our way?”

Gerfers offered up a few relatively inexpensive ideas, including an aquifer storage and recovery project that captures rainwater during heavy monsoon season storms and stores it underground. The system diverts rainwater from city streets, where it can cause massive damage before evaporating. “It’s like a savings account, but for water,” Gerfers explained. 

“We want better water, cleaner water and more water well into the future,” he said. 

No action was taken at the September 29 workshop, but Presidio County residents can expect these ideas to find their way into agenda meetings down the line as the county makes critical decisions about how to spend their federal windfall.