Presidio County Commissioner Precinct 4 candidate questionnaires

Candidates for Presidio County Commissioner Precinct 4 weigh in on current issues ahead of the November 8 General Election 

David Beebe (D) 

Tell us about yourself. What experience do you bring to this role?

I bring my experience as a three-term Marfa city council member (2008-2014), a small business owner, seven years working in the courthouse and 10 years of regular attendance at county commissioners court meetings. I am aware of the county’s financial structure and operations. I am experienced in the budget process.

As a county commissioner, how would you work to increase public involvement in county government? 

As a commissioner I would strive to provide succinct information about the county’s operations by writing a brief synopsis of each meeting, posted to my website following that meeting. This will allow people to follow along with county business (and educate themselves) without having to attend the meetings on their own. I will also insist that the commissioners court agendas be posted every time and on time to the county website, in accordance with state statute. The county is not currently doing this. Lastly, I will hold “office hours” at a public location open to all in the days following each meeting to answer questions and receive feedback.

As of late, talks regarding the creation of a regional EMS service have launched. How will you add to the conversation about a potential regional EMS solution and other ongoing initiatives to increase healthcare coverage for local citizens? 

Regional EMS service has been a goal for some time. The hurdles include how to structure the administration, allocation of assets and EMTs, and how to pay for it all without breaking the bank. Currently the cities shoulder the brunt of the costs, with sizable contributions from the county and from hospital distract grants. A regional emergency services district is the preferred way to do this, but it will be a team effort in presenting a proposal to the public for a new taxing district. Restrictions on maximum funding will likely still require some direct contributions from the cities and county. Unfortunately, bringing streamlined and more predictable EMS service to the county will increase costs to a certain extent. Countywide leadership will have to be focused on bringing forward a system for the future that doesn’t break the bank.

Presidio County commissioners recently adopted a resolution committing the governing body to “actively participate” in a water infrastructure steering committee. What do you see as priority projects for our water infrastructure planning, and how will you help better prepare the county for the future in terms of our water infrastructure? 

I am a big believer in water infrastructure planning and conservation. Our local underground water district is taking the steps to try to gather an idea of our aquifer resources and ways to best use and protect what we have. Providing clean and consistent water for our residents throughout the county is a priority. The Texas Water Development Board has provided many grants to improve the established drinking water utilities in our county (Marfa, Presidio, Redford, Candelaria). Some of our communities are currently reliant on less regulated systems that are at risk in case of lower aquifer levels or contaminants. It’s important to note that the trade-off in using grants to provide water access is that all users must be metered and pay for their water usage. We need to move into the future with water system goals for areas such as Shafter and the colonia north of Presidio known as Las Pampas, as there is growth in both communities. With proper planning, administration and working conservation technology into our water systems we can both protect our water and provide for our more remote communities.

The county recently issued a disaster declaration relating to the increase of migrant crossings along the Texas-Mexico border, referring to the situation as an “invasion.” Do you support this declaration? What is its purpose? 

Presidio County Commissioners Court made a Declaration of Border Crisis on May 26, 2021. This was made in order to be eligible for Operation Lone Star grant funds beginning Sept 1, 2021. The original amount awarded by the state was $822,000 for the fiscal year Oct 1 2021- Sept 30 2022). Earlier this year the state announced that additional grant funding would be available under the same grant that will bring the total to a maximum of $1.4 million. In July of 2022, commissioners passed an addendum to the application to accept the additional funds. The word “invasion” was used in the adoption language. Usage of the dehumanizing “invasion” language was not encouraged or required to receive any additional money under the grant, but has been encouraged by right wing militia groups in other counties. I do not agree with commissioners embracing aggressive military engagement terms for our civilian forces of law and order.

As of September 25, 2021, the county had received $350,000 in grant reimbursements for items such as sheriff’s deputy overtime, vehicle reimbursements, equipment, ATVs and trailers, software upgrades, jail staff bodycams and the like. More money will be received as items are received and bidding processes for larger items have been completed. It is unknown as to whether the county will receive all money available, but I believe we will at least get very close.

My opinion on this is as follows: The Legislature has decided that these types of disaster grants are how the state will fund local policing operations. If we do not apply for, comply with, and execute these opportunities we’ll be left with more local taxes trying to keep our sheriff’s office equipped and staffed. So I believe we must utilize these opportunities. On a side note, having county employees who can administer these complex grants successfully will continue to be of utmost importance and we need to keep that in mind.

To date, the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office has received over $1.4 million in funding from Governor Greg Abbott’s Operation Lonestar border security initiative, which it has used to fund vehicles and equipment, according to the county auditor. In your opinion, has that boost in state dollars positively impacted our area’s border security? How might the county support other entities, in addition to the sheriff’s office, with state border security funds? 

See the above question for my numbers (from the auditor) and overall thoughts on this trend. I believe our sheriff’s office does need resources to help with local DHS operations. Hopefully this will be a help to them and us.

How can Presidio County commissioners continue to participate and advocate for the construction of the Presidio-Ojinaga bridge? 

The shortest answer is that the physical building of the auto/truck bridge is in TXDOT’s hands and the railroad bridge customs inspection facility is in DHS’s hands. The short response is that the county can and has played a role in trying to move things forward. The now defunct Presidio International Port Authority was a good first step and accomplished a few very important things, but lack of leadership led to inaction. A port authority or advocacy group should be reconstituted with members who are willing to focus on that work. County and other local officials not able or willing to put in the requisite effort should not join the group.

How would you work with others to address the lack of affordable housing in Presidio County that previous, existing and future residents are dealing with? Housing committees have come and go in the past, is it time to establish a specific group to address this critical issue? What might potential solutions look like and who would you choose to involve in the conversation?

As the county lacks statutory zoning power, our options for supporting affordable housing are somewhat limited. The topic of low- and middle-income housing is a national one, but is especially poignant here in Presidio County Precinct 4, which includes most of Marfa. It’s clear to me that after many attempts and a few misfires, our community has two general options. We can drive and help enable the Marfa Housing Authority to develop more subsidized housing, and/or we can encourage and grant tax breaks and possibly some infrastructure improvements around a privately funded development plan to bring what we want to our county. I am open to any serious efforts to make something happen on this, including partnering with the cities of Presidio and Marfa.

What are the primary environmental issues currently impacting the county? What are your plans to address those issues? And how might you help better prepare the area for potential future climate crises?

We live in a beautiful landscape of near-pristine natural features and resources. It’s up to our citizens and our leaders to maintain this land and water. The primary threat to this in the immediate future is unmanaged growth. We have discussed the international bridges and our need to see them completed and operating safely and efficiently. Additional truck traffic will likely occur, and at this point will come through Presidio and Marfa proper. I participated in numerous (nearly every) meetings with TXDOT designers and local stakeholders regarding making Highway 67 safer and more suited to the future. I’ve been an active and energetic proponent of the South Orient railroad rebuild, which would facilitate trade and remove trucks from the roads. I believe that as a county, we will have to be present and stand very strong to advocate for what we do and don’t want on our roadways. Balancing the inevitable changes to our corner of the state while putting a premium on environmental stewardship and tourism will be key. I will work exceptionally hard to do my best to find ways to do that.

With regard to climate crises, we already have had a glimpse of mother nature’s wrath with the Redford flood of 2008 and the Rock House Fire of 2010. Events such as these will continue and hopefully won’t be more frequent anytime soon. Continually improving our emergency services, including our fire departments, is our best preparation for these sudden destructive events. Keeping leaders and citizens engaged and aware about how to practice safety and preparedness for fires, floods and freezes should be a constant theme. Long-term planning on how to manage a crisis while it is ongoing is something that local officials need to work on.

 

Garey Willbanks (R)

Tell us about yourself. What experience do you bring to the role? 

I’m 61 years old with a business background that began in a family business and later with several entrepreneurial ventures. I have led companies with staffs and budgets larger than those of Presidio County. I also have served on boards and committees for several nonprofits.  I believe in the concept of public service and believe that anyone either elected or employed by public entities has a single purpose: to “serve” the interest of those constituents who employ them. I’m confident that my experience makes me the most qualified candidate for Presidio County Commissioner Precinct 4.

As a county commissioner, how would you work to increase public involvement in county government? 

It’s mostly about better communication. The first step I have already taken is by running ads in The Sentinel which include my phone number and an invitation for anyone in the county to reach out to me at any time with a call or text (cell 432-888-2845).

Second, I think it would be a great public service if The Sentinel would publish the agenda and invitation to attend each upcoming commissioners court meeting and a link to the minutes of the previous meetings. This would provide everyone a greater awareness of what the county is doing for them and how their tax dollars are being spent. I plan to publish a letter explaining the basic function of the county government and the role of the commissioners court as public servants. So long as the judge and four commissioners can have proactive and honest communication with the community, I believe that the community will get involved with the issues that are important to them and those are the issues that will become important to me.

As of late, talks regarding the creation of a regional EMS service have launched. How will you add to the conversation about a potential regional EMS solution and other ongoing initiatives to increase healthcare coverage for local citizens? 

The idea of a regional system makes sense for the tri-counties. And I think it’s good that Big Bend Regional Hospital District is leading this exploration. It will be a tough job to merge these services under one umbrella, but what a difference it could make in improving the speed, reliability, and quality of medical services. If we can get this done properly it will save lives and give our community more peace of mind in an area where we have significant

challenges today. County governments have and will continue to be a key part of providing medical and emergency services to our community and supporting this is part of my commitment to my neighbors. 

Presidio County commissioners recently adopted a resolution committing the governing body to “actively participate” in a water infrastructure steering committee. What do you see as priority projects for our water infrastructure planning, and how will you help better prepare the county for the future in terms of our water infrastructure? 

Infrastructure is a fundamental part of the county’s responsibility. We have lagged behind in water and sewer initiatives because the county just has not had the money to undertake these costly projects. We now have a unique opportunity to access funds for projects that would otherwise be unaffordable for the county to carry alone. The steering committee is the right start, bringing together stakeholders to access federal funding and apply it in a way that lifts the quality of life for our community. I spent a few days with Trey Gerfers (steering committee chairman) recently at a Texas convention, where we discussed the possibility that could arise out of this opportunity. It’s a big deal and we are moving in the right direction. Without regard to the outcome of this election, I will continue to be involved through the Presidio County Underground Water Board and the Alamito Foundation. This obviously is and has always been one of the crucial issues surrounding our county’s most precious natural resource, “WATER,” and its preservation, distribution, and use! 

The county recently issued a disaster declaration relating to the increase of migrant crossings along the Texas-Mexico border, referring to the situation as an “invasion.” Do you support this declaration? What is its purpose? 

This issue is disturbing to me. Words are important. Conciliatory and caring words can draw people together alternatively, charged or inflammatory words can separate us and shut down productive communication and understanding. “Invasion” is one such word. I wish that the county had not used it in their declaration and that The Sentinel would not continue to highlight it in any way that creates division in our community. It’s just not helping in any way. I don’t believe the purpose of the county’s resolution was to fan the controversial flames of the immigration debate. The immigration debate is important, but it should take place in the national and state government arenas. Unfortunately, as residents of a border county we and our county tax dollars have no choice but to bear a disproportionately large share of the burden. 

The resolution which was supported unanimously by all attending members of the commissioners court was clearly intended to help position the county to recoup the tax dollars that we have spent on increased law enforcement and social services. All resulting from the extremely large influx of people crossing through our county from the southern border. This was done in an effort to keep your and my taxes from going up. The purpose is to cover these costs by positioning the county to get outside funds to reimburse the extra money that we are spending. I’m definitely in support of that concept. Another question that has been raised by some is: Will this disaster declaration give unwarranted power to the county officials? It’s a fair question when asked in the context of a power grab demonstrated by a government body. I don’t see any indication of such a power play in this circumstance. So far, I believe our county officials are on the right track despite an unfortunate choice of words. 

To date, the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office has received over $1.4 million in funding from Governor Greg Abbott’s Operation Lonestar border security initiative which it has used to fund vehicles and equipment, according to the county auditor. In your opinion, has that boost in state dollars positively impacted our area’s border security? How might the county support other entities, in addition to the sheriff’s office, with state border security funds?  

It would be impossible to not acknowledge that our local law enforcement is carrying a substantial added burden resulting from the high influx of people crossing the border. We should all be thankful for any subsidy the county receives from the state or federal governments to help us cover the costs of this burden. The size and rugged terrain of our county makes the need for dependable vehicles and equipment a high priority for the sheriff’s department. It’s hard to quantify the impact of these funds on border security, but I am pleased that our sheriff’s department has the additional funds for vehicles and equipment that are critical to responding to the safety needs of our community. Most of these funds are limited to specific purposes and don’t provide for much latitude in how they are spent. There is an opportunity for the county to be more aggressive in our pursuit of grants to fund a broad range of infrastructure and social services. I will be an advocate for a more proactive approach to fund raising through grants for country projects and programs.  

How can Presidio County commissioners continue to participate and advocate for the construction of the Presidio-Ojinaga bridge? 

I really don’t know much about this project, but I look forward to visiting with the judge and other commissioners as well as our congressman and senators about how we should be involved in the bridge conversation. 

How would you work with others to address the lack of affordable housing in Presidio County that previous, existing and future residents are dealing with? Housing committees have come and go in the past, is it time to establish a specific group to address this critical issue? What might potential solutions look like and who would you choose to involve in the conversation?

This is one of the most challenging issues we face, and it particularly impacts Marfa which is my precinct. Although the county government likely will not be the sole solution, we can lead the conversation and contribute to the solution. It’s a difficult issue that requires a great deal of thought, and there is likely not a perfect answer, this is probably why previous committees have struggled to move the ball forward. A couple of ideas:

1 – Taxing entities could offer property that has been seized for non-payment of taxes to developers who would be willing to construct low-cost housing on the property.

2 – Provide property tax incentives for developers willing to invest in construction of affordable housing.

3- Work to find grants or federally subsidized housing programs and promote these programs to prospective housing developers/builders. Stakeholders that have a vested interest would be the county, city, MISD, real estate developers and other local employers who need workers who can live here. They all can contribute, both to the conversation and solutions. 

What are the primary environmental issues currently impacting the county? What are your plans to address those issues? And how might you help better prepare the area for potential future climate crises? 

From the beginning of time Presidio County has had a single primary environmental issue; that’s the scarcity of water! We have always been and always will be a desert community. Today we have better data and are better educated to address these problems and pursue solutions. We have several local committees, commissions, and nonprofits focused on putting forth ideas and funds that are allowing us to improve our engagement of this issue; one that in the best case is a quality-of-life issue and in the worst case an issue of survival. I am passionate in my love of the West Texas landscape and the people that are my neighbors. The key to cultivating growth within these communities is in how we retain and respect the precious little water that falls on our county. Some may call it a crisis and others in Presidio County may just call it a way of life. In any case I am focused on and will continue to cherish this life-giving resource.