City Council approves HOT grants for local organizations and raises utility rates

MARFA — City Council met for a regular meeting last week to approve two new utility rate ordinances, which will allow them to increase customer fees, and greenlit hotel occupancy tax (HOT) grant proposals. 

Mayor Manny Baeza, Mayor Pro Tem Irma Salgado and council members Raul Lara, Eddie Pallarez and Jason Ballmann were present. Early in the meeting, Council swiftly voted to approve two ordinances, one for new water and sewer fees, another for new natural gas fees, which will allow the city to charge customers more for those utilities. New rates should be reflected in November billing, said City Manager Mandy Roane in an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel

The profitability of utility services was a major point of discussion in this year’s budgeting cycle, with a few city departments losing money on providing the services, which are designed to generate revenue for the city to help pay for other operations. The city is raising rates for water and wastewater, which have remained stagnant since 2015, based on recommendations from a water and wastewater rate study city staff had performed. The city will use the altered rates to help fund local water infrastructure improvements over time, first prioritizing water storage, said Roane. Roane said for now water and sewer rates were set to increase by 8% each. 

The need to also increase natural gas rates stems from the fact that the city recently renewed its contract with provider West Texas Gas (WTG) and, even though Council selected the cheapest of the available renewal options, its new rate, $7.91 per MMBtu, is more than double the previous rate of $3.60 per MMBtu. The city will likely pass on this increase to city customers, but Roane said gas usage tends to vary widely between households and the city was currently unable to provide an estimated average change in natural gas rates. 

The city is in ongoing legal discussions with WTG relating to a $114,000 bill they received from the February 2021 winter storm. In similar cases in other cities, the cost of the invoice was passed on to customers via an increase in rates, but it remains to be seen how the city and WTG will proceed with the bill. Roane said the city should have an update on the matter in time for the next City Council meeting on November 8. 

Next, the council voted to approve the city’s participation in a group seal coat program for city streets from Parkhill, an architectural and engineering design services company the city has previously worked with. Last year the city allocated $125,000 to the program which “is just to expand the lifespan of those deteriorating roads,” according to Mayor Baeza. Council opted to participate in more seal coating for city streets this year and allocated $150,000 to the program. 

Lastly, Council heard from Director of Tourism Abby Boyd, who also serves on the HOT grant committee with Mayor Baeza and Mayor Pro Tem Salgado, regarding HOT grant recipients for the current cycle. The city gives out HOT grant money twice a year, and the council approves which organizations get funds based on recommendations from the HOT committee. 

This year, the city budgeted to receive $700,000 in HOT revenue. HOT grants given must fall into one to four main categories: arts and culture, advertising reimbursements, sports, and historic preservation. Funds must go to events or activities that promote the local tourism industry. 

The city budgeted $185,000 this budget cycle for historic building preservation, and $41,000 for historic preservation events and programs. Most of the historic preservation money was already spoken for during the budgeting process, with the city allocating money to The Marfa and Presidio County Museum and the Blackwell School, per agreements with those entities, as well as money for historic events, including the Marfa Lights Festival and Chinati Weekend, both circa 1987. 

Because of this set up, the Friends of the Hunter Gym, a newly-formed nonprofit organization looking to restore and preserve the old adobe gym on Marfa ISD’s campus, was denied a grant they requested for historic preservation for the amount of $35,000. However, the mayor mentioned the city will reconsider the group for funding while planning next year’s budget. 

For arts and culture funds, Ballroom Marfa was awarded $7,500 for their fall exhibitions, MAINTENANT was awarded $5,500 for current exhibitions, the Marfa Chamber of Commerce was awarded $3,000 for the Marfa Holiday Bazaar, Marfa Live Arts was awarded $500 for its Beyond the Box program and another $500 for its My HEB partnership project, and Marfa Open was awarded $500 for their fall arts festival. 

For advertising reimbursements, Ballroom Marfa was awarded $3,500, CineMarfa was awarded $1,500, the Marfa Chamber of Commerce was awarded $3,500 for the Marfa Holiday Bazaar and Marfa Live Arts was awarded $2,000 for its Beyond the Box program and an additional $2,000 for its My HEB partnership project. For sports, the Marfa 100 bike race was awarded $2,000 and an additional $3,500 in advertising reimbursements.