County commissioners talk county jail, code enforcement, disaster declaration

MARFA — At last Thursday’s meeting, the Presidio County Commissioners Court spent hours discussing the county’s top priorities in hopes of setting a preliminary budget for fiscal year 2022-2023. The county must file a budget by August 15 — budget workshops over the past few months have stretched long into the afternoon as the commissioners have difficult conversations about the county’s financial future. 

Commissioners also discussed negative feedback from constituents regarding a local disaster declaration signed by County Judge Cinderela Guevara, which declares Presidio County under “invasion” by migrants and asks Governor Greg Abbott to issue a similar declaration.

Before breaking off into another budget workshop, the commissioners tackled two important matters: renewing contracts related to the county jail and considering the creation of part-time code enforcement officer positions. The commissioners voted to approve the renewal of contracts between the Marfa Police Department and Presidio County for “jail confinement services,” as well as a contract with Hudspeth County for housing of Presidio County prisoners, at the rate of $60 a day. 

Both Presidio County and Brewster County have contracts with Hudspeth County to absorb overflow and changes in facilities. Back in March, Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson explained to The Big Bend Sentinel that folks arrested by DPS in Brewster County on state-level immigration charges were sent to Sierra Blanca, “not your local DWIs and stuff.” Brewster County’s contract was meant to absorb the higher number of arrests on state charges following Operation Lone Star, Governor Abbott’s surge of funding and law enforcement to border counties. 

According to local law enforcement, Presidio County isn’t having the same issues with jail space in the wake of Operation Lone Star — instead, the county’s contract with Hudspeth County is preemptive, part of the preparations for upcoming significant renovations to the jail’s roof. “That’s only a contract if we’re out for repairs and the jail’s closed down –– we’ll send those inmates to Sierra Blanca,” explained Gracie Porras of the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office. 

The commissioners also voted to set aside some cash in next year’s budget to hire part-time environmental code enforcement officers, who would help the county enforce ordinances meant to protect local waterways and keep constituents safe. County Judge Cinderela Guevara explained that these code enforcement officers could be current or retired law enforcement — for whom the training has a minimal cost — or the county could pay a little bit more to train code enforcement officers from scratch. 

Precinct 3 Commissioner Eloy Aranda was on board. “We’ve been talking about this for years,” he said. In the corner of South Presidio County he represents, constituents have complained of large illegal dumps along Highway 67. He was willing to give residents some time to clean up their act — he suggested that the first step would be to have the county draft a form letter that could be sent to folks not in compliance. 

Judge Guevara agreed that a light touch was the best way to get results. “Code enforcement is very sensitive,” she said. “[Officers] will want authorization from this court, saying they work part-time for the county and that’s why they’re there. We’re here to ask you to clean up. We don’t want to give them the ax right away.”

The City of Marfa has a code enforcement officer, but because so many of the issues with code enforcement occur outside of city limits, both city and county officials felt that hiring a county-specific officer — or several — would help keep unincorporated areas safe and tidy. 

“It’s a mess out there, it has been for years,” said City of Marfa Police Chief Steve Marquez. “But the county has to take care of the county. I know they’re trying to reach out to us and come up with ideas.”

The commissioners ultimately voted to set aside $20,000 to the cause. “I wish we could give this more money and dedicate more attention to this,” Judge Guevara said. “But at least this will get the ball rolling.”

The commissioners then broke into a workshop to take further steps toward a preliminary budget. They touched on topics across the board — everything from the county’s imperiled emergency services to potentially investing in generators for cooling centers to buying better recording equipment for city and county meetings. “Everything has to do with public safety in some way or another,” Judge Guevara said. “It’s hard to find a priority.” 

Toward the end of the meeting, Precinct 1 Commissioner Brenda Bentley raised some concerns constituents had sent to her in the wake of Judge Guevara’s declaration of an “invasion” of undocumented migrants in Presidio County. Bentley was not present at the meeting where the commissioners voted to ratify the judge’s declaration. “I don’t know how I would have voted,” she said. “But I’ve got several pages here of emails and phone calls that I’ve gotten.” 

Bentley noted that the feedback that she had gotten was largely negative and focused on the nationalist rhetoric invoked by the declaration. “It’s the kind of language that incited what happened in El Paso,” she said, referring to a mass shooting at a Wal-Mart in 2019. The shooter reported that he had been moved to kill 22 people in response to “a Hispanic invasion of Texas”; he has since been charged with 90 counts of federal hate crimes.

Guevara did concede that there were nuances to the issue, but argued that the scale of the problem justified military force — she pointed to both the federal and state constitutions in defending the language used. “We’re not talking about the humanitarian part of it,” she said. “There are people coming here for the right reasons. They want to come and work and have a better life for their families. It’s just the unprecedented numbers that we have now that calls for military force.”