Presidio County passes FY24 budget, looks to uncertain future

MARFA — At Monday morning’s meeting, the Presidio County Commissioners Court passed its FY24 budget and tax rate. The proposed budget would have had a shortfall of around $680,000 — but negotiations about this year’s tax rate brought that figure down to $278,000. Last year, the deficit was around $300,000.

The budget was subject to an extensive workshopping and public hearing process. In the last few days of drafting, finalized expenses that included standard yearly raises for county employees and an additional contribution to both the Marfa and Presidio EMS services widened the deficit. 

In order to close the gap, the commissioners had to look toward the county’s main source of income — property taxes. County Judge Joe Portillo felt the county had no choice but to finesse the tax rates in order to preserve basic services and retain employees. 

The commissioners court ultimately decided to adopt the de minimis tax rate of $0.47005 per $100 of taxable value. In past years, the county has opted for the voter approval rate, which is the highest rate a taxing entity can charge without giving voters the power to petition for an election. This year’s voter-approval rate would have been $0.43046 per $100 of taxable value. 

Adopting the de minimis rate can be a tricky political maneuver. While it will help the county shrink its deficit by around $470,000, it also gives voters the power to petition for a rollback election, which would bump the property tax rate back down to the voter-approval standard. 

While acknowledging that property tax rate increases were not popular with voters, Portillo pointed out that major statewide property tax cuts would absorb the county’s rate increase. Even without this legislative session’s slashes to homesteaders’ bills, adopting the new rate would literally add pennies on the dollar — about four cents to each $100 of taxable value.

Between approving the proposed budget and adopting the finalized budget, county representatives had to make difficult decisions about raises — historically, the county has faced issues with employee retention and burnout. The majority of the county’s full-time employees make between $20,000 and $50,000 a year.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Brenda Silva Bentley has repeatedly raised concerns about the state of county employee pay, citing rapid inflation and the ballooning cost of living in Marfa. “I couldn’t live on $30 to $40,000 a year and raise my family and have a home,” she said at a budget workshop on August 11. “When we talk about raises, we’re not giving them a lot — we’re just helping them get by.” 

The county’s law enforcement officials will see the largest pay increases this year, thanks to SB 22, a bill offering grants to sheriff’s departments and court systems in border counties. Presidio County Sheriff Danny Dominguez will earn the highest salary of any county employee this upcoming year with an SB 22 raise of $20,253.86. 

Outside of the court system, County Clerk, District Clerk and Election Administrator Florcita Zubia will see a raise of about 20%. Zubia’s relatively large raise is due to the fact that she does the work of three people — with an annual salary of $53,719, she will perform duties that cost neighboring Brewster County around $170,000. 

This year’s budget discussions brought into stark relief the financial differences between Presidio and Brewster County. On Tuesday, Brewster County passed a balanced budget — during the budget workshop process, commissioners decided to fill a potential shortfall of about $274,000 with reserve funds, or funds left over from earlier budget cycles. 

Just under a third of Brewster County’s new tax revenue this year will come from new properties added to the tax rolls. That number in Presidio County is just o.5%. “That means we’re basically a failing economy,” said Precinct 4 Commissioner David Beebe. 

At Monday’s meeting, Judge Portillo speculated about why Presidio County’s budget was so far behind Brewster’s, despite each county enjoying a tourism boom. He pointed out that Brewster County gets an influx of cash from Big Bend National Park, the federal courthouse and Sul Ross State University. “Obviously, that’s where the dollars get spent,” he said. 

County commissioners will not receive raises this year, and Portillo opted to take a pay cut — $3,224 of his annual salary will be diverted to his assistant Carina Nuñez. Other non-elected county employees will be given a cost-of-living adjustment of 3%. 

Portillo felt that Presidio was not the only rural, poor county dealing with the same issues. In 2019, a property tax reform bill passed by the Legislature cut counties’ abilities to raise their tax rates annually from 8 to 3.5%. “To put it bluntly, Senate Bill 2 requires cities and counties to stay within their taxpayers’ ability to afford their local government,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick wrote in a press release. 

What that means for a county where 35% of its people live below the poverty line remains to be seen. Presidio County is still required to perform the same functions as larger counties: roads and bridges must be built, birth and death records must be kept, trials must be held.

Officials named a few opportunities for the county to grow its economy. Portillo has long championed international trade and the growth of the port of entry at Presidio. Commissioner Beebe was interested in the prospect of geothermal energy — in July, the Presidio Municipal Development District set aside $15,000 for a local feasibility study. 

Though Presidio County has historically struggled with money, Portillo felt that property tax reform over the past two legislative sessions wasn’t helping the situation. “We all have the same problems,” he said of poor, isolated counties facing budget shortages. “Their hands are tied with the same rules that the state gives everybody. We have to unite as rural counties.”