City Council appoints new council member, board members for city departments, discusses stalled fire station upgrade project

MARFA — A full house gathered last week in City Hall’s Casner Room for a regular city council meeting in which the governing body appointed a new council member and new members to the Parks and Recreation and Planning and Zoning boards, and revisited a long-awaited project to upgrade the city’s fire station, which was ultimately tabled due to insufficient funds. 

Mayor Manny Baeza, Mayor Pro Tem Irma Salgado, council members Raul Lara, Eddie Pallarez and Mark Cash as well as City Manager Mandy Roane and City Attorney Teresa Todd were all present. 

At the start of the meeting, during the customary citizen comment period, several locals requested the city extend open hours for the Marfa Activities Center pool. The routine swimmers expressed gratitude for the facility reopening, but advocated for additional open hours for adults who utilize the facility for recreation and rehabilitation. 

“I’m sure there’d be a greater turnout and even more people would enjoy it if you could find a way to pay those lifeguards for a couple more hours,” said Valerie Arber, who argued the current adult swimming schedule — three days a week, 10 a.m. to noon — was rather restrictive. 

Belinda Dominguez agreed, stating the pool was a critical resource for those with physical ailments. She requested greater pool access and wondered whether the pool could remain open into the fall season, as opposed to closing at the end of the summer. 

“It takes us longer to put our bathing suit on and take it off than [the time] we’re in the pool. I would appreciate it if you guys would consider opening it longer, more hours,” said Dominguez. 

Council thanked the citizens for their feedback and next moved on to discussing recent bids they received for a long-awaited fire station improvement project. The project involves breaking up station upgrades into two phases — phase one would erect an insulated metal building on the back of the existing station’s bays for greater weatherized vehicle and equipment storage, and phase two would add facilities like a bathroom, laundry room and kitchen to the interior. The city-owned building is operated and maintained by fire department volunteers. 

The cheapest bid the city received for the project, $447,733.78 from New Construction out of Alpine, was still $172,000 over budget. Roane broke down the costs and said that funds were coming up short despite allocated funds from various entities — $147,500 from the city, $50,000 from the county, and $10,000 from the fire department itself.

Council discussed with Fire Chief Gary Mitschke and members of New Construction present at the meeting whether the estimate would hold into the future and whether it was possible to start the project and complete it later when more funds came in. Some, like volunteer fire department member Zeke Raney, who helped draw up the architectural plans, recommended against that strategy. Designs were already stripped down to their most essential parts and doing partial construction would only complicate matters further, they said.

Salgado brought up the forthcoming tax note, or loan, the city is expecting to receive to help pay for infrastructure projects, wondering if money could be allocated to the fire station improvement project. Roane said the money wouldn’t be in hand until later this fall, and Baeza said there were many competing infrastructure projects that would need to be addressed with tax note funds. At a loss for how to move forward, Pallarez prompted Mitschke for suggestions. 

“Well, I’ve been talking about this for a lot of years. I hate to say we’re just not prepared,” said Mitschke. “Honestly, I don’t have any solutions for this right now.” 

Without the necessary funds available to greenlight construction for the project, council let the agenda item die for lack of a motion, with Baeza stating to council members the fire station project and estimated cost was something to keep in mind for the upcoming budget cycle. 

In a follow up call, Mitschke said although it was disappointing to see the project stalled, the department would hope for good news during the forthcoming city budget cycle and now, with a more accurate figure as to the project’s cost, could rally some fundraising efforts. 

“I just put it out to the citizens of Marfa. How important is the fire department to you? We can use their support in getting this done,” said Mitschke. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and our wheels are squeaking right now.”  

After approving health insurance renewal rates for city employees for 2022-2023, council heard from city permit specialist Ann Dunlap, who advocated to revise an pre-existing ordinance in order to specify a 20-day deadline for those wishing to file an appeal to the board of adjustments regarding city zoning decisions. Council approved the 20-day deadline as well as the appointments of two new members, Lee Mediano and Lauren Meader Fowlkes, to the Planning and Zoning Commission. Council also approved the appointment of Deirdrea Lyon to the Board of Adjustments and Jake Davis to the Parks and Recreation Board. 

Next, council convened into executive session to discuss which candidate to appoint to the vacant council member seat. A recent shakeup of city council saw two council members with expired terms, Buck Johnston and Yoseff Ben-Yehuda, leave office. Of the two open positions, only one was filled — by Councilmember Mark Cash, while existing Councilmember Pallarez opted to stay on for another term. Cash and Pallarez were both appointed, as opposed to elected, earlier this summer after the city election was canceled due to too few candidates competing for the roles. 

In contrast, the city recently received around six applications from those wishing to fill the vacant council seat and after assessing each candidate, reconvened from executive session to announce the appointment of Jason Ballmann, an independent contractor working in communications and crisis management consulting, who moved to Marfa within the past year. Ballmann will serve a one-year term and will be sworn in to the city council soon. 

“I am honored, thank you for the opportunity,” said Ballmann, addressing the council, who soon after adjourned the meeting.