City council covers Feb. 2021 gas bill, regulation of home food businesses and property boundary issues in latest meeting

MARFA — City council members started off a varied meeting last week by hearing from the Blackwell School Alliance President Gretel Enck, who reported on the national historic designation of the site — which is currently awaiting approval from the Texas Senate — and the school’s successful fundraising efforts.

Enck said the school is vying for an $800,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration and raised $70,000 in matching funds to restore the building. 

“We’re really happy with all the money we were able to raise,” said Enck. 

News as to whether or not Blackwell will be awarded the grant will arrive in the next few months, said Enck. If received, the first step will be to hire an architect to construct a master plan for the building. 

After the citizen comment period, council then moved on to reassessing a $114,000 gas bill they received in December dating back to last February’s winter storm. City Manager Mandy Roane, City Attorney Teresa Todd and Gas Department Manager Jim Mustard recently met with the city’s outside attorney to assess their options moving forward. Todd said their immediate next steps are to search for the city’s original contract with natural gas provider, West Texas Gas, and request certain documents from the company which have not yet been provided. 

Roane reported she was keeping in touch with the City of Alpine, who received a similar invoice. 

“Alpine is sort of thinking the same thing that we are: why can’t you tell us exactly where these charges are from? Why didn’t you warn us that this was coming? Because if you have been negotiating these bills, you should have told us that it was coming so we could budget. And why did you wait so long to bill us? Why did you give us eight days to pay?” said Roane. 

West Texas Gas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

With much still up in the air, council agreed to discuss the matter again at the March 8 meeting, where their outside attorney will write up a response and submit recommendations. 

“We need to dig a lot deeper before we pay this bill,” said Todd.

Next up on the agenda was whether or not to release a request for proposals (RFP) for architectural and/or engineering planning services for stabilization of the Marfa Presidio County Museum building. 

Roane suggested issuing an RFP for an architect or engineer to assess the building and come up with a list of recommended actions, which the city could then use to put out another RFP for a contractor to perform the work. City administrators and council members have met repeatedly with a contractor who could take the work on after direction from an engineer, they said. Given tight budget constraints, it is likely work will be performed over time, said Roane. 

“When we look at the engineers list, we speak with our contractor and we find out what is most important, what’s going to keep the building safe, what’s going to be the most lasting and the most impactful work and then have everything in phases,” said Roane. 

The topic concluded with Roane and Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda assigned to draft an RFP for council approval at the next meeting. 

Discussion then moved to the issue of instating a food establishment rules ordinance in order to better regulate citizens selling food out of their homes. The city will adopt Texas’ food establishment rules, which do not apply to foods allowed by Texas cottage food laws — primarily baked goods and other items. Items that are typically not allowed to be sold out of homes, according to the Department of State Health Services, are temperature controlled foods like meat and dairy.  

“So what we’re trying to do is make sure that anybody who’s selling food commercially is set up correctly. They’re in a commercial kitchen. They’re actually a restaurant,” said Roane. 

Public Works Supervisor Chuck Salgado was recently working on enforcing the city’s existing grease trap ordinance because significant amounts of grease were being dumped and causing issues in the city’s sewer lines, said Roane. But home kitchens are difficult to regulate, unlike a commercial kitchen where Salgado and his team can access the facilities and check for proper grease trap size and maintenance. A handful of area restaurants are upgrading their systems after recent visits from the public works team, Roane said. 

Many of the homegrown culinary operations started up during COVID, said Mayor Pro Tem Irma Salgado, with people selling a variety of foods like menudo and pozole on local Facebook pages and sites. The city is partly seeking out an ordinance in order to treat all these entrepreneurs fairly, said Mayor Manny Baeza. Those coming to the city for permission are being denied, while those who did not seek approval are operating out of their own volition, he said. 

The code enforcement department will carry out the new ordinance, which will require kitchens selling food commercially to have a three-basin sink and food thermometers, among other State Health Services regulations, said Roane. If found in violation, individuals will be issued a $2,000 fine. The ordinance passed with the majority of council members voting yea, with the exception of council members Raul Lara and Buck Johnston who voted nay. 

Council wrapped up the meeting by reviewing necessary actions relating to a petition by Marfa resident Conception Campos to purchase an approximately 234 square foot portion of East Lincoln Street where her front porch and house are encroaching onto the city street. Campos has a contract to sell her property, and discovered the 3.9 foot encroachment after a survey was conducted. Campos must now purchase the area of encroachment from the city in order to sell her home. 

The city intends to accept her petition and move forward with the sale, but the process was ultimately thwarted without a necessary signature from a neighbor who abuts the property. 

Councilmember Salgado commented this is a common issue in town, with City Manager Roane agreeing the council is likely to see many more of these in the future. The problem is due to homes being passed down and inherited for generations, surveys not regularly being conducted, and inaccurate measurements from long ago, said council members. Realtor Kathleen Walstrom was present at the meeting representing her client Campos. 

“All of a sudden we have houses and garages and porches and things that are where they shouldn’t be,” said Walstrom. 

“The city doesn’t have utilities in this area. [Campos] said this house had been this way since before she was born,” said Todd. 

Council members and Walstrom agreed the sheer number of encroachments in the area makes it a confusing matter to sort out, with everyone on the block around four feet off of their actual property lines. Todd offered to work with Campos and Walstrom to help explain the matter to neighbors and the issue was tabled for a later date. 

“We’re going to be doing this for the next ten years, three feet at a time,” said Mayor Baeza.