City renews natural gas contract, slashes 2022-23 budget 

MARFA — City Council met this week to renew its contract with natural gas provider West Texas Gas and worked to make significant cuts to the mayor’s 2022-23 proposed budget

A scheduled public hearing on the proposed 2022 tax rate was postponed due to an administrative error on the agenda, and will instead take place on September 29 at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall. At a meeting earlier this month, Council voted to approve a preliminary tax rate of  $0.371 per $100 of taxable value, a 2.35% increase from 2021. 

At the September 29 meeting, the Council will hear any citizen comments and concerns and formally adopt a new tax rate. That evening, City Council will also vote on whether to approve the proposed budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year, which the governing body is still working through via a series of budget workshops

On Tuesday night, Council first went over contract renewal rates for natural gas provider West Texas Gas (WTG). Per Mayor Manny Baeza’s recommendation, Council voted to move forward with a three-year contract that locks in the price at $7.91 per MMBtu, an energy unit, pending confirmation that the rate includes the cost of transportation. The rate was the cheapest of three options presented, but will still more than double the previous rate the city’s contract held of $3.60 per MMBtu, meaning customers will see an increase in their natural gas bills moving forward. 

Next, Council discussed expanding the scope of work for a previously approved invitation to bid on the repaving of Russell and Mesa streets to include a handful of additional city thoroughfares. City staff outlined critical areas in need of a total rehabilitation to be Third Street, from SH 17 West to Austin; Gonzales Street, from Columbia to Third; Summer Street, from Lincoln to Columbia; and Edinburg Street, from U.S. 90 to Sacramento. The city has, so far, budgeted to spend $2 million — an increase from their original allocation of $1.5 million — worth of forthcoming tax note funds on street repairs this budget cycle. 

Councilmember Jason Ballmann expressed concerns about spending $2 million solely on street repairs when the fire department’s expansion project was still short $87,000, but Council voted unanimously to approve the addition of more streets, with City Manager Mandy Roane explaining that the invitation to bid could always be revisited if funds were ultimately allocated elsewhere. 

Then the budget workshop portion of the meeting began. As council members left it the previous week, the budget was in the red by around $200,000 and cuts needed to be made. Since that meeting, city department heads each suggested 5%-cuts to their budgets, and council members went through department by department to talk over which cuts made the most sense. 

For city administration, Council voted to decrease the budget by a total of $10,000, funds which were originally allocated to paint City Hall and purchase new conference room furniture for the Casner Room. The municipal court budget had originally allocated $18,000 for the hiring of a new part-time employee to help city staff answer phones — the latest revisions, however, saw the removal of that proposed new employee.

The Marfa Activities Center, which Council originally budgeted for pool sandblasting and painting treatments, saw a decrease in the budget by $10,000 from building maintenance and pool supplies and equipment categories — as it stands, city staff will repaint the pool, rather than using contracted labor. The law enforcement department was able to save a total of $1,500 in the equipment maintenance category. 

The city was able to save a significant amount of money on professional services for the water department, which were brought down from $40,000 to $10,000 due to geographic information system (GIS) services no longer being needed, and made additional cuts to the gas department’s budget to the tune of $9,500. The EMS, library and nutrition center budgets, for now, remain unchanged. 

With those additional savings here and there, a balanced budget was starting to take shape, but there are still a number of undetermined factors, noted Mayor Baeza. The city is awaiting final recommendations on a water and wastewater study that will affect customer rates and the city’s budget, plus potential raises or salary adjustments for city staff also need to be hashed out, he said. 

“So now, Council, we’re only in the hole $30,000, but this does not include the COLA [cost of living adjustment], this does not include the water rate increase that y’all may propose, it doesn’t include natural gas rate increases,” said Baeza. “But this is much better than where we started off today.” 

Before the final budget approval meeting on September 29, another budget workshop will take place at 6 p.m. September 28 at City Hall.