City Council discusses anticipated hike in natural gas prices, appraisal district budget, open city positions

MARFA — City Council met for a regular meeting this week to discuss a forthcoming contract renewal with natural gas provider West Texas Gas — which will likely see a sharp increase for consumers, the Presidio County Appraisal District budget, and open positions in the public works and sewer departments. 

All council members were present with the exception of Eddie Pallarez. Mayor Manny Baeza, City Manager Mandy Roane and City Attorney Teresa Todd were present. 

The council meeting opened with discussion of the city’s relationship with natural gas provider West Texas Gas, which the city is currently in legal negotiations with regarding a $114,000 natural gas invoice they received this past December that dates back to the February 2021 winter storm. The city’s current contract with WTG is set to expire at the end of the month and negotiations regarding a renewal are ongoing. However, city officials made it clear that prices would increase significantly, possibly even doubling, for consumers. 

Roane outlined the city’s most recent contract proposal from WTG, stating rates vary depending on the day the contract is signed. The city’s current rate, $3.60 per MMBtu, an energy unit, would increase to $8.43 for a 12-month contract (a 134% increase), $7.38 for a 24-month contract (a 105% increase) or, the city’s best option, $6.96 for a 36-month contract (a 93% increase).  

“The long and short of it is, chances are the rates are going to be going up for the customers, really no matter what,” said Todd. 

Todd said there were a lot of overlapping issues with WTG relating to the outstanding $114,000 gas invoice that still needed to be worked out. City administrators are to meet with J.J. King, vice president of marketing with WTG next week, she said. Council members Raul Lara and Jason Ballmann expressed concern for how the higher rates would trickle down to the City of Marfa’s gas customers and asked whether an average household increase could be calculated. 

But, because the city sets its own utility rates for natural gas and may absorb a portion of the cost, a percent increase would be difficult to determine before the forthcoming budget cycle, said Roane, while acknowledging rates would increase significantly. 

“We can’t absorb a 93% increase in the city budget,” said Roane. 

Because WTG owns the natural gas pipelines that service Marfa, even if the city tried to get another provider, WTG would charge them a transportation fee which would then get passed down to the city. Council decided to table the matter to their next city council meeting at the end of the month. 

Council next moved into executive session to review updates on the $114,000 WTG bill, but no new action items were announced when they returned, other than for Todd to continue to work with their outside attorneys regarding the matter. 

Next, J.D. Newsom, executive director of the Big Bend Regional Hospital District, invited council members to a day-long workshop on August 31 in Alpine to discuss a potential regional hospital solution. Newsom said a braintrust of representatives from local governments and EMS personnel is being formed in order to work through challenges and solutions relating to establishing a more centralized EMS system, something that has been on the minds of many following recent EMS challenges in Brewster and Jeff Davis counties. 

Newsom said the sudden passing of Mike Scudder, who owned and operated Alpine EMS, and the county’s subsequent rush to secure an EMS provider revealed how precarious the system was. 

“It was a really devastating loss to our first responder community in the region, but I think [it] opened our eyes to how fragile some of our emergency service operations are,” said Newsom. 

The tri-county area has a total of six different EMS providers, he said, which were facing similar, repeated operational issues that might be remedied by unifying services. 

“I think it’s fair to say that all of our EMS operators have a lot of challenges, whether it be funding new ambulances, recruiting personnel, providing these vital services for our residents in such a large geographic area, that I think it’s worthwhile to look at what a different model might look like,” said Newsom. 

Roane said she was planning on attending the workshop along with Mayor Baeza and Marfa EMS Director Bert Lagarde. 

Council then reviewed and ultimately voted against approving the Presidio County Appraisal District’s amended budget for 2022, which includes a 5% pay raise for PCAD employees. After much back and forth over whether to approve it, council members were locked in a split tie which saw council members Ballmann and Mark Cash voting to approve the budget and Councilmember Lara and Mayor Pro Tem Irma Salgado voting not to approve — the mayor then broke the tie with a nay vote. Those against the budget were wary of approving a 5% increase in salary for PCAD employees before their budget cycle, which will determine if and how much city employee salaries will increase. 

Last were the Mayor, City Manager and Police Chief Reports. Mayor Baeza notified council members the budget planning season was fast approaching, and his goal was to have a drafted budget available for the next city council meeting. Council will meet throughout September to finalize the 2022-23 budget. Roane reminded all the pool would close for the summer on August 12 and said the Sewer Department as well as the Public Works Department was hiring. Sal Roman recently retired after over 30 years in the Public Works Department. 

Chief of Police Steve Marquez updated council on the department, stating that Marfa PD along with many other local law enforcement agencies were participating in a second active attack training drill at MISD this week. They were also able to fill their final open position, he said, and are welcoming a new officer from the Fort Stockton Police Department. Lastly, their new police fleet vehicles were not yet all complete due to camera technology outfitting delays.