I have some extra energy tonight, despite another marathon City Council meeting. Hopefully it'll be enough to post up the whole nine yards with regard to what went on tonight.
The first order of business was the Public Hearing on the proposed noise ordinance. A short preview- Marfa currently has a noise ordinance that is basically unenforceable unless we want to turn off the amplified church bells at the Catholic church. forgo having any music at the Marfa Lights Festival, and basically prohibit any outdoor noise. It was clear from the response at the hearing that nobody wants to restrict local culture and entertainment to that extent.
I was very pleased with the turnout at the hearing; the room was full and the comments never broke down into name calling and insults, minus a reference by a citizen regarding the (somewhat legendary but not applicable to Marfa) drinking habits of Irish Catholics. That comment was rebuked by others and was not pertinent to the topic at hand anyway, so I will ignore it here.
Some highlights of the public comment period included Fred Martinez' plea for cooperation and limiting the scope of a proposed ordinance to something that will work for Marfa. This was a recurring theme as many citizens agreed that what is good for Fredericksburg, Austin, Houston et al does not necessarily apply to our community, with our unique traditions and mix of cultures. Adobe Moon BBQ property owner (not operator) Jon Johnson passed out a revised proposal for a noise ordinance that would be based on a cut-off time (clock-based) and communication between neighbors. Lineaus Lorette, the major force behind the initial complaint(s) stated that he would be happy with enforcement of the current ordinance with an exemption for the church bells and perhaps some limited special events. Lucy Garcia stated that, through the years, Marfans had cooperated in turning off the music at 11PM on weeknights, midnight on Fridays, and 1 AM on Saturday nights. She went on to state that dances have always been held in Marfa and that this has never caused a problem in the past. Rosie Garcia stated that she believes the new noise ordinance would preclude her and other older Marfans from enjoying music outside while doing chores and that some of the "newer" Marfans would like to regulate the fun out of our lives. Maria Williams pointed out that Conchita's restaurant, across the street from Adobe Moon and cater-cornered to the church, has been a liquor store and that a bar called the Six-Two Inn had been next door and hosted loud music and drinking for years back in the past and had never been an issue. Mary "Tita" Nunez, an active member of St Mary's Catholic Church mentioned that a Rosary service had been disrupted recently by the band at Adobe Moon on a Saturday evening and that she was in favor of a compromise much like what most members who spoke had mentioned- a mixture between our old ordinance and the proposal that Jon Johnson presented to the group. Other comments along the same lines were made throughout the meeting, with communication and cooperation being the major themes. Jon Johnson made an apology to St Mary's about the rosary issue and stated that he would like to communicate better in the future so that something like that won't ever occur again. His apology was accepted by Mrs Nunez and an apparent peace looks like it will be forthcoming.
Other sections of the hearing got somewhat off topic when the subject of whether the Adobe Moon is a bona-fide family restaurant or merely a "honky-tonk". Differing opinions plus a protestation of the Adobe Moon having ever been issued a beer license were brought forward, with customers of the Adobe Moon defending the place (including Joni Marginot from the Marfa Chamber of Commerce) as a great place for groups like high school football teams and Boy Scout troops to meet for a large=group dinner of relatively fast and good food. Sales tax revenue plus the fact that they are actually open quite often were mentioned, countered with the allegation that beer and wine sales have become the focus of the business. I stated that, by Texas law, the place is classified as a restaurant first and a bar second as long as alcohol sales make up less than 50% of gross sales. Period. This was an attempt to steer the conversation back to noise and the noise ordinance. Lastly on speakers, the Rev Connors from the Baptist church spoke twice and had some excellent homespun wisdom of coming together and remaining positive. He scolded several in the audience, including the mayor, for using unnecessarily divisive language at times during the hearing. It was pleasant commentary from a man of conservative cloth who has certainly seen a lot and clearly cares for the future of Marfa as a true community. Kudos to him from me. Later in the city council meeting portion of the meeting, we agreed to postpone the matter and study a potential noise ordinance further. Councilman Manny Baeza proposed the idea of creating a seven person special panel of volunteers, 2 councilmen and the city administrator to draft an ordinance for Marfa. The motion was approved with the commission being made up of Manny, myself, city administrator James Mustard, David Hance, Burt Compton, Rosie Garcia, and Mike Calvert. We will meet sometime next week to discuss. I am open to suggestions in person or by telephone. I am listed in national information here in Marfa under my name. If you have an older phone book my number is under Memorial Funeral Home. No emails please.
I was very happy with both the turnout and the spirit of community at the public hearing. Thanks so much to all those who participated and shared their thoughts. It is great to see Marfans speak and listen to each other.
And now, break for random photograph-
Here's a picture of Adam Bork and Ross Cashiola at the El Cosmico Festival a few weeks back. I played the bass and took the picture from the stage. We were all violating the current unenforced and practically unenforceable noise ordinance currently on the books.
City council meeting- we started the meeting at 6:05 PM after a short break following the public hearing, which started at 5PM.
All members, including Scott May, who had missed the public hearing due to work, were present for this meeting.
After the Pledge of Allegiance the floor was open for the citizen comment period. No citizen comments. Following that we unanimously approved last meeting's minutes, with a few small changes to the text.
Next, Mayor Dan Dunlap gave his report, in which he stated that he attended the Rio Grande Council of Governments meeting and that Big Bend Community Action, based in Marfa and serving over 21,000 square miles of territory in 5 counties won the award for RGCOG Organization of the Year. He went into a summary of the wide scope of social services they provide, mostly to elderly and infirm residents of this part of Texas and gave a status report on their many projects. This is a great organization and one of my neighbors here on the block.
Next we had the City Administrator's Report.
City administrator Jim Mustard gave us his amended interpretation (based on documentation received from the AG) of the new opinion essentially restricting all councilmember comments to items specifically listed on the official agenda, minus statements of fact or clarification of specific policy in response to citizen comments or questions. All other comments of any sort are now supposed to be listed as a specific agenda item. It is my opinion that this is restrictive to productive and transparent government, as minutes are available on the public record and no item not on an agenda will be voted upon. That's my opinion, and I'm sure the opinion of other local officials from around the state. It is a widely accepted opinion of local governments that this interpretation of the Open Meetings Act will be challenged in court soon. In the meantime, we have to accept this opinion as the basis for (unwritten) law.
Next Jim discussed an agenda item for later- commercial trash rates. There will be a difference in treatment for smaller commercial customers and the city is clarifying the size and frequency of dumpster collections on the commercial basis. This item is further discussed later as an official agenda item. (I was not permitted to ask a question at this point under the new rules!)
Next, the sewer plant project. No change in status, as the TCEQ has still not issued us an acceptance or rejection of our application.
Next, a response as to Rudy Garcia's inquiry as to whether we have a program in place for maintenance of our city owned vehicles and heavy equipment. The police department already has a detailed process of keeping track of and scheduling routine maintenance and the Dept of Public Works will now have similar worksheets to fill out and keep track of in order to keep their equipment maintained. It is my opinion that this is a major step in the right direction, given the price of things like backhoes, 3/4 Ton trucks, bulldozers and road graders these days and that a little routine maintenance can really save us a lot of time, trouble and money over the long term.
Lastly, Mr. Mustard let us know that an organizational meeting regarding the new volunteer fire fighters pension plan will occur on Nov 10th. At that meeting a Pension board will begin to be organized and the administrators of the plan will relate to the city what type of board will be assembled and what duties and responsibilities it will have. The goal is to have the program organized, in place and active by January 1st. I am 100% in favor of this plan over the former benefit the fire dept volunteers received, which was free water (no water bill). Pension plans make for benefits that can be received post mortem by surviving spouses and offer disability payments as well, should that occur. Fortunately, the requirements for volunteer fire fighters in Texas these days are so stringent that we have a very safe and qualified volunteer force and injuries on the job, even minor ones, are close to none. Disclosure- I am a vested member of the American Federation of Musicians Pension Fund and it was well worth the work and time to earn in. I have no spouse to survive me if I pass, but if I live, I have a consistent minor source of income. If I become disabled and unable to work my benefits kick in early and last through my death.
Since no comments from council members were listed in advance on the agenda there were to be no comments from councilmembers. Rudy Garcia piped in with a reference to an agenda item (police force status report) that he had requested. I then piped in with an update on the MAC building planting with a reference that a general statement of fact, with no action or debate, should be permitted, although apparently illegal under the new AG opinion. I stated that the 1st phase of the plants is in and doing fine and that the drip irrigation system will be installed in the beds the weekend of Nov 17th when the TPWD has its meeting there. All this at no cost to the city. I was then informed that several of the new plants will have to be moved in order to facilitate the renovation of the swimming pool bathrooms and locker rooms. I offered to safeguard those plants in the meantime. Anyway, I guess I still can't help challenging laws I think restrict our freedom (to speak of all things!) so, although my mother will cringe, I did it again.
Next: we heard from Marfa Police Chief J.D Wilbourn. He gave us a comprehensive police dept report on activities the dept has conducted for the whole year, to this point. It was broken down into regular police business and/or calls, animal control calls/service and code enforcement calls. The information was very detailed and it is clear to me that J.D. has a good grip on his paperwork, reporting and exactly what is going on in his office and with his deputies. I won't go into much more detail, but he also showed councilmembers a breakdown of a state audit of the police/sheriff's dept books and response/arrest of all agencies in Presidio County and it's clear that our force has more focus, at the very least. 24 hour on call service, which we have never had before (and it's a good thing we do, since the Presidio County Sheriff's Office's phones have been disconnected) is now in place thanks to call forwarding to the officer on duty from the main police number. He also went into detail on some of the non-police (well, not required) work the police force takes on, including welfare check on elderly residents, watch programs for people's properties who are out of town for extended periods, community service programs, and much more. It was clear that J.D. was prepared for this presentation and I was glad there was a fairly large group of citizens there to see it.
The last part of the conversation between councilmembers and the police chief alluded to a supposed meeting that may not have actually occurred between the chief, the city administrator, the mayor and the municipal court judge regarding the types of tickets/citations that could be given out to maximize revenue to the city. I remember vividly when this was brought up during the budget process and I was very upset about law enforcement being used as a potential revenue source. Rudy Garcia is the councilman who brought this up tonight and myself, Rudy and Manny Baeza (possible Rusty too) remember this moment from the meeting a few months back and were eager for clarification, as I said before, this was disturbing to all of us (definitely to me, as I get pulled over by DPS at least twice a month for various reasons- "safety check", "obstructed" license plate, etc. We received clarification satisfactory to me from the chief, the city administrator and the mayor on the issue and I am glad that we did.
Now, finally we get to the point in the meeting where we address action items! These meetings are getting longer every month.
Ist item is "Old Business"
We had tabled the proposed noise ordinance until after the Public Hearing and now we addressed it again in official debate. See above public hearing statement to see the action we took. Long and short- we did not adopt it and have appointed a commission to draft an ordinance explicitly for Marfa to present to council at a later date for consideration. Theoretically we will create an ordinance that reflects the will of the citizens that was expressed during the Public Hearing
Discussion with action as appropriate to address the city's obligations under certain forms of government.
After we raised the garbage rates to an astronomically ridiculous level based on the bill we get from our provider (Duncan Disposal- parent company Republic Disposal- poor corporate citizens in my estimation and I'm being kind) talk at the last meeting and around town was that there was a petition going around to force an election on changing our form of government back to the three man system we once had. That is the same system that resulted in our selling our city owned garbage collection to a private outsider for a song and also our forfeiture of a minimum of 10% of our ownership of the SWTMG gas corp for apparently no money- at least not money that went into city coffers.
Anyway, the city administrator, although he has no vote and no say in city policy, is able to put items on the agenda and he used this opportunity to explain the city's required service obligations and non-required service obligations. The point was made that a change in form of government would not be required to eliminate the MAC building, the Nutrition Center, the golf course, EMS service, the Police dept, the city administrator's position and other smaller items (we are required to have municipal court.) The current council could address and eliminate these items if need be (minus some basic police service on the far west end (west Heights) since they were annexed later). The mayor provided us with a breakdown of how much individual city services cost the citizens after expenses and revenues are factored in.
Here's the breakdown in this year's budget dollars. I read this out loud for the audience (loudly).
Police/Animal control/code enforcement: 146,761
Fire Dept: 0
Municipal Court: 9,234
EMS service: 183,285
Golf Course: 28,208
MAC/swimming pool: 18,598
Seniors' Nutrition Center: 49,038
Public Works: 259,121
Minus property tax revenue: 184,499
Total shortfall that is made up through sales tax revenue, water, sewer, permitting and garbage fees: 715,614
I could go on and on on this matter, as we did at the meeting (for nearly an hour) but I will say that this shortfall would be MUCH larger if not for the various grants our city applies for and receives, mostly because we are a poor border community and are eligible for funds relating to Homeland Security and low income community grant funds from various agencies. Another note: the recycling deficit can be turned into NOTHING aka ZERO is businesses and the majority of homeowners were to make the effort to utilize the recycling center. Stay turned here for more info on our upcoming cardboard recycling effort, to be implemented once the county renews our lease at the composting/recycling area next to the golf course. This item appears further down tonight's agenda.
Lastly, certain citizens are intent on seeing the police dept cut down to one officer. More than 65% of the police dept's funding comes from Border Star grants through the Dept of Homeland Security; this is money from outside our area being funneled into our community in the form of wages, benefits, and money to spend maintaining our equipment. I personally feel that 24 hour police protection is an absolute necessity, more so than a golf course, library, MAC center, and/or Parks and Rec dept. I find it ironic that several of the same citizens who want greater code enforcement and to have every single streetlight turned back on NOW as an issue of public safety want us to go to 8 hour per day, 5 days a week police protection with one officer on the force. Think about that for a minute.
Finally, ITEM 2, under new business. Most of the audience hhad retired to the saner streets of Marfa and their homes by now, as we were getting tired with a mere 7 more items to consider tonight.
Item 2- discussion with action as appropriate concerning Ordinance 08-08 revising the rates for commercial trash pickup.
This is kind of a complicated issue, as the city records and billing process for commercial accounts were very hodgepodge, to say the least and have been found to be extremely inaccurate. Since we have only approved new trash rates based on the new Duncan Disposal rates (we have not yet approved their contract and are operating month to month until a new contract is ratified by both parties)we are going to reclassify the commercial customers based on actual usage, with dumpsters being marked for individual commercial users and send Duncan a new revised proposal using fewer pickups and fewer commercial customers. I would like to congratulate the citizens for being so aggressive and outspoken regarding the new rates last meeting and forcing the executive branch of city government to further investigate our own billing practices and how it relates or doesn't relate to what Duncan charges the city for each customer and/or pick up. There are many confusing details to go into, but I can give a personal example of a change in billing/service that will save some money to the customer and potentially reduce the Duncan bill to the city. It turns out that I found out from Saarin Keck, who did some extensive research on what Duncan charges the city and what the city charges the customers in relation to the aforementioned. She also did some investigation into whether certain individuals in the city (government and otherwise) were receiving favorable treatment that may or may not have influenced the negotiations with Duncan and the corresponding city rates. it turns out that I have been paying for a Medium sized commercial dumpster since I set up my water service last year when, in fact, I have a small (residential) dumpster that I "share" with my absentee neighbor next door. No biggie for me, since I generate very little garbage being that we re-use 90% of the old building materials and save most of the rest for future projects and also that I am not open and generally recycle nearly all the trash I generate. My dumpster has only been full once and that was when I cleared my neighbor's property of trash and brush once he received a citation for tall grass last month. Anyway. they are going to automatically reduce my rate to a "not in use" commercial rate, aka small commercial, once a week pickup, which should save me about $100 a month. This was the measure we voted on tonight- to basically reclassify some super small businesses as residential (like law offices, etc) in order to get a better rate from Duncan and also to reduce some pickups for other commercial customers in order to get ours and the businesses' costs down. Next month your bill, if you are commercial, may be lower. I would visit the city in person to confirm that your dumpster size and # of pickups per week has been clarified. Hopefully Duncan will accept our new pickup schedule and classifications and will lower their bid in accordance with what they claim their rates are for each type of customer and number of pickups. This will be a great test to see if Duncan is really a straightforward, honest company that negotiates in good faith. The city still stands to lost about $2000 per month with the new reduced rates, but I think it will be worth it to relieve the stress on local businesses during this challenging economic time. Passed unanimously.
Item 3 - I'm getting tired of typing.
Discussion w/ action as appropriate to turn on various streetlights along the state highways within the city limits. I immediately moved that we accept this proposal , which will cost the city $1726.00 for the fiscal year, including conversion of several lights to the new, more efficient and environmentally friendly standard. This is a total of 22 streetlights and includes all along Dean and Highland on the highway right of way and many on HWY 90 (San Antonio) excluding some I excluded from my streetlight study, based on privately owned lighting that adequately lights the roadway in certain areas. Re-lighting the public lighting in those specific areas would be redundant and a waste of valuable funds for the city. Passed unanimously with Rusty and Manny abstaining.
By the way, this is the 2nd batch of streetlights we have authorized to be re-lit. AEP is currently busy with another large electrical installation project, so the lighting is lagging behind. That being said, AEP has been a good corporate citizen and worked with us to help us reduce our exposure to rising rates with help installing better and more efficient technology at no additional charge. The lights will be on sooner than later and we are making progress. More to come as well.
Item 4- Discussion w/ action as appropriate to designate the Big Bend Sentinel as the official paper for the City of Marfa.
This is a yearly exercise for Public Notice purposes. Unanimous.
By the way, Mercer Black is the new webmaster for the BBS and the new website for the paper is under construction. I know that part-time residents and loyal tourists are looking forward to having the paper back online, but I would remind everyone that a by-mail subscription to the print issue is a mere $40 and money well-spent for anyone with a financial stake or otherwise in the future of Marfa. I gave my mother one for her birthday and my parents, who have not been to Marfa since well before I decided to move here, now follow the local Marfa news loyally.
Item 5- Discussion w/ action as appropriate concerning the lease w/ Presidio County for the recycling and composting area. No action taken. We merely reviewed and discussed our draft of a lease with the cash strapped and currently telephone-less county for our former landfill, where we operate a composting area. animal shelter and the recycling center. We must have a new valid lease in order to receive our previously approved grant monies to purchase our cardboard baler and extend three phase power to the metal building out there to operate same and other future industrial recycling equipment. By the way, when we get that baler operational I will be pushing all local businesses of any size to please recycle that cardboard from your delivery boxes and help conserve resources and also make our recycling program a break-even proposition for the city. We will be recycling glass, cans, cardboard, plastic and using washable dishwares only here at Padre's once we open next year. I have two trailers and special trash receptacles for pre-sorting our waste and I will be saving money for the city and my business by integrating aggressive recycling into our daily routine. I can and will be happy to advise other local business folks on how to do the same.
Item 6- Discussion w/ action as appropriate concerning review of bids and award contract for new software and hardware for new accounting system.
Boring techie talk. Councilmember Scott May is a good geek and had some good input on the 2 different bids, both from reputable local companies in Alpine. Councilmember Rudy Garcia had a negative service call experience with the low-bid company on his personal computer. I weighed in on some basics that I know from personal experience with my machines and also advice from some super Houston geeks like Jay Lee of the Houston Chronicle and KPFT FM 90.1's Wednesday night Geek Show.
We approved the slightly higher bid for a slightly more detailed and marginally more sophisticated system from Compucare in Alpine. The free non-warranty and software support as opposed to the $70/hour from the other bidder for same sold me, especially given that this is a three computer Windows XP Pro system and is not set-up right to begin with could be troublesome. Rudy's negative experience was, in my mind, also pertinent, and Scott's geek meter pointed him to recommend this package from Compucare over the nearly $800 cheaper alternative (with fewer specifics). Anyway, we are coming in several thousand dollars under budget for this new system and our old hardware (printers, etc) will work with it no problem, saving us quite a bit on that side, as well. Hopefully the new system will be in place and the old one mostly on the way out by Dec 1. Possibly Jan 1, knowing how December is for the labor force out here on the island. Unanimous passed for Compucare- $3824.97.
Item 7- Discussion w/ action as appropriate concerning review of bids and award contract for Water Plant backup Generator project:
We tabled this item given that our engineer (Keith) from our water quality experts Parkhill-Smith had not yet had a chance to review the single bid we received from the sealed bid opening. That bid was from local firm Rockpoint Construction Inc, also dba Calvert Electric. Cheryl and Mike Calvert were present in the audience and to me the bid looks good and reasonable, but the opinion of our knowledgeable advisor Keith from P-S will shed light on the details. We opted not to re-open bidding but to table action until more information is received. We have no mandated deadline for project implementation.
Item 8- Discussion w/ action as appropriate concerning Ordinance # 08-10 implementing FTC requirement for Identity Theft Program.
This is another example of the Feds requiring local entities to take on more paperwork and responsibilities without giving us additional funding of any sort. We must adopt by Nov 1st or be in clear violation of federal statutes. No question that we would adopt, but I wanted to know the approximate initial and ongoing costs associated with implementation. City admin. Mustard said estimated $1000 in training and misc costs at first and then minimal costs for ongoing. Unanimous except Scott May abstains (no reason given)
Item 9 - Adjourn!!! Finally.
Thanks for reading. If you wish to leave a comment, please leave at least your first name and preferably contact me directly. - David