City of Marfa hosts budget workshops, grapples with budget deficit

MARFA — It’s budget season for the City of Marfa, and council members gathered this past week for a series of workshops to comb through Mayor Manny Baeza’s 2022-23 proposed budget by department, hear from city staff, and talk over the town’s critical needs.

As council members left it Monday evening, after hosting their third budget meeting, the city was significantly over budget by around $200,000 and needed to make cuts. But with inflation, a desire to give city employees raises, and mounting infrastructure projects, there was no clear answer as to where to make up the budget shortfall. 

City department heads, including the gas department, EMS, library, nutrition center and police department, were in attendance to walk through their operating costs and request raises for their staff. Baeza said he anticipated the budget would be tough this fiscal year just based on the state of the economy, and while giving city employees a 3% cost of living raise would be great, the city needed to increase their revenue to be able to afford it. 

“I know we all have a wish list, we all want to give raises, possibly donate more to organizations, whatever it may be, but we have to cover our costs as well,” said Baeza. 

The city is anticipating receiving their 2022 tax note, which they voted to approve in June, in the next couple of months — $2.95 million dollars the city will spend over the next three years and pay off within the next seven years. The funds will be added onto existing tax note money the city already has to total around $3.1 million. But, for the most part, those funds have already been earmarked for street, water and sewer infrastructure improvements. 

“We can use it for street improvements, water and sewer system improvements, a new water well, acquisition of vehicles, equipment,” explained Baeza, “So we cannot use those monies to offset our budget.” 

Before council members were ultimately faced with an unbalanced budget, they worked through the proposed budget in the days prior to make sure it reflected current activities, projects and improvements. On the city administration level, professional services were a source of strife. With City Attorney Teresa Todd’s suspension as a result of her arrest last month, the city was spending more than usual on contracted lawyers at $250 an hour, so opted to increase the professional services budget by $25,000 to cover the cost. 

“We are going to have to be using outside legal representation for random things, so it’s going to hurt us significantly,” said Baeza. 

Council also opted to budget for a part-timer at City Hall who would help answer phones for administration staff, who City Manager Mandy Roane said were struggling to keep up with the call volume of the city’s municipal court customers and others. 

In discussing Marfa Police Department’s budget, Baeza explained the $155,000 of federal and state money budgeted was made up of grant funds from Operations Lonestar and Stonegarden, but additional grant funds could funnel in throughout the year. Roane said the city will be notified as to whether the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant it applied for to help Marfa ISD hire a school resource officer was awarded on October 1. 

Last year, the city allocated $211,000 of Operation Lonestar grant monies toward funding five new police vehicles and $30,000 of city funds. The city will have to pay off $81,000 toward the leasing of the vehicles over the next two years, but recently applied for additional Operation Lonestar funding to do so. This year, the police department will also utilize around $30,000 worth of old Operation Border Star funds to revamp their office space to make it more private and suitable for handling juvenile cases as well as citizens giving statements and being interviewed. 

The Marfa Volunteer Fire Department, and how to fund its long-awaited expansion project, was a popular point of discussion at city budget talks. Presidio County recently announced that they would dedicate $224,000 of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds toward the fire station expansion project, but those funds will need to be spent by the city, then reimbursed by the county. The city has carried over a budgeted amount of $147,500 for the project from previous years. 

Fire Chief Gary Mitchke told council members the original construction bid they received for the project earlier this year had since gone up by $20,000, and he was concerned if they didn’t start soon the contractor would back out. And even with the boost of county ARPA funds, the project was still coming up $87,000 short. 

Councilmember Jason Ballmann pushed for the city, who owns the fire department building, to include the full fire station expansion project in their budget in order to see the project come to fruition. 

“That sounds like we need to increase the budget to the full amount of the project still if we are going to be waiting on the county to reimburse us, and we need to get this done. It’s a primary critical service, it’s fire, which is operating at a third of the budget of the police,” said Ballmann. 

The option to use money from the 2022 tax note was brought up, but Baeza warned of prematurely allocating the funds when council still wasn’t sure how much priority areas like streets were going to cost them. 

“That three million will disappear in a hurry. But I am in favor of completing this project for the fire department,” said Baeza, who noted in a later meeting that the fact that two homes in Marfa proper have burned down over the past year was significant. 

Council agreed to come back to the item at a later date. 

“Bottom line is I appreciate anything y’all can do. We really do need it very badly,” said Mitchke.

The way the volunteer fire department, a 501c3 and not a city-run entity, is funded was talked through at length. City of Marfa utility customers can opt-in to a bill surcharge which helps fund the fire department, but Mitchke said those contributions have been on a decline for years. The city takes money out of those contributions to pay for building utilities and fuel for vehicles, and gives the fire department the remainder of the funds at the end of the year. 

“Not too many years ago, that $17,000 was about $35,000. I just want you to know those have really gone down, and it seems like it’s doing that steadily,” said Mitske. 

Hotel occupancy tax (HOT) historic preservation dollars could be distributed to the fire department for a $40,000 roof repair to the historic section of the building, while the Marfa and Presidio County Museum and USO Building are also likely to see HOT funds. Director of Tourism Abby Boyd brought forth to Council a laundry list of upgrades needed at the USO, including painting, repairing original floors, getting rid of an unwanted beehive, and replacing ceiling tiles. A preliminary estimate for the work was coming in at $30,000 for labor alone, but the city will seek a turnkey estimate which includes labor and materials moving forward for the community facility. 

“There’s more that will need to happen as time progresses, but I’m just trying to take care of the major stuff. This is a space that so many locals use regularly. It’s very important to the community, so it being a nice place where people can have weddings and parties and things [is important],” said Boyd. 

Street repairs were highlighted as a priority this budget cycle by the mayor, and council voted to approve raising the budget from $1.5 to 2 million — which will come out of the tax note funds — for a complete rehab of a handful of city streets. The city already outlined Russell and Mesa streets as in critical need of repair, but will make recommendations on other far-gone streets to be fixed, which Baeza said might attract a favorable bid due to the fact it would be a bigger undertaking.

The city is awaiting final numbers and data on a water and wastewater study they are having performed, which will help them reassess utilities rates which haven’t been raised since 2015. Rates are likely to go up for both residential and commercial establishments, city officials acknowledged, but are likely to affect commercial entities more. Raising rates is meant to help pay for long-term infrastructure updates, said Roane, like the failing Chinati Foundation sewer pipes and expansion of services into Antelope Hills and East Heights. 

“We have the capital improvement plan, and it’s looking at how we’re going to pay for several multimillion dollar projects, and that’s going to be a factor in the rates, not just how much people are using, but [what they’re] going to be covering,” said Roane. 

Similarly, natural gas prices are projected to increase for city customers, primarily due to the high price of the resource nationally. The city has yet to enter into a new contract with provider West Texas Gas (WTG) and was waiting for rates to become more favorable. Also still in question is a $114,000 bill from WTG the council received in December dating back to the February 2021 winter storm, which, regardless of how ongoing negotiations with the company shake out, will also need to be budgeted for. 

The city will hold both a public hearing on the proposed new tax rate and an additional budget workshop next week, September 20 at 6 p.m. at City Hall.