Thursday, April 19, 2018

Notes on Marfa City Council Candidate Forum 7:00 PM Wednesday April 18, 2018.

Here are my notes on a fast moving and productive Candidate Forum for Marfa City Council candidates. The upcoming election has three seats up for grabs. The top three vote getters will take the seats for a two year term. There are seven candidates with one incumbent (Manny Baeza) who was elected for the first time in 2008. That was the same year I was first elected to council. I served three terms and then decided to go for a County position due to the dysfunction of the County at that point. I believe in self-imposed term limits. Not for overall public servant careers, but for individual positions within public service. That Manny is in his tenth year of service is both a plus and a minus. He has done an excellent job, and we have not always agreed on everything, but no matter. I found myself during this forum listening to his responses and thinking I would have responded the exact same way to each question. Is this an endorsement? No, but it isn't a snub either. But it may show that those who go throw the same experiences see the same answers.
I am overly grateful that, for the first time in my history here, we have more excellently qualified candidates running for essentially unpaid service positions with the City than ever before. It's the best possible "problem" to have.
Please vote!
If you are looking for a recording of the forum in its entirety, Marfa Public Radio orchestrated one (following some considerable probably unnecessary controversy) and it should be on their website at

Notes begin below.

Notes on Marfa City Council Candidate Forum Wednesday April 18th, 2018.
USO Building 7:00 PM

Candidates present : Buck Johnston, Natalie Melendez, Saarin Keck, Mary Lou Saxon, Manny Baeza (incumbent), Raul Lara, . Absent: Alberto Garcia

Convene at 7:06 PM.
Trey Gerfers introduces the candidates 

Candidates get three minute introductions.

There will be Five questions from moderator Trey Gerfers to follow.

Buck Johnston: 
Thanks organizers and attendees. Says Marfa is the best town in America. Homeowner and business owner. Strong opinion that citizens contribute to the city. Created, chamber member for three years, Election judge, co founder of Design Marfa, runs Bike Marfa, expanding to 20 bikes soon. Additional items listed. 
She is interested in hearing new ideas, anywhere. She is a hard worker and gets stuff done. Supports others in their success. She loves this town. 

Raul Lara: Born in Alpine, raised in Marfa since 1970. Shorthorn alum 1986. School board elected 1984. Loves Marfa. Former councilmember. He loves Marfa. Streets are bad. Council needs help. Taxes are paid, streets are really bad. Beautiful city, it's embarrassing. He is blunt and honest. Asks for consideration.

Saarin Keck: Thanks audience. Co-owner of Pizza Foundation. Moved her in 2002 to open a neighborhood pizza place. Has employed close to 200 people, most high schoolers. Watched them all grow up, considers them as close as family. 
Experienced first hand rise in property values when looking for a new location. Wants to give back to the community that has given to her. Chamber board member, active with school in the past. Brings business experience. Knows a broad spectrum of the people here. Has an understanding of what would benefit the city. Asks for support.

Natalie Melendez: Says she has lived here six years. Worked many jobs. Dougherty of a Salvadoran refugee and an Iranian social work oriented attorney. Has been involved in civil liberties and prisoners rights programs. Has worked with high schoolers with digital right and freedom of speech issues. Many jobs here in Marfa. Currently works four jobs. Running for city council because she wants to be a representative for the people. Compassionate listener, pragmatic and great concern for public welfare.

Mary Lou Saxon: Thanks audience. 7 year resident, formerly of Dallas. Citizens here are privilege to have many great resources. Marfa is divided though, and there are issues. City Council must represent everyone equally. Recent property tax increases have hurt all. Tax values were overdue for a rise, and property tax increases are on everyone's mind. City is not to blame, but city must be involved in helping citizens survive here. Wealth transfers from lucrative events should be considered and affordable housing needs to be addressed. A well run council is a must. Excited about the new administrative on, wants to assist and contribute.

Manny Baeza: Employed by AEP, has been on city council for the past ten years. Has seen the city be in terrible shape. Ten years ago the finances were in a shambles. We have come a long way since then. He has been involved in infrastructure replacement projects. Is aware about the streets and we need to address them now. Patching is not cutting it. We need to investigate buying an asphalt zipper and try to do streets in house. Council has been fiscally conservative over the last ten years. Audits have never been adverse in his tenure.  He is also the President of the Parks and Rec dept. many accomplishments and lists them. Marfa cleanup of debris in dirty lots and the creeks is very important. Encourages volunteering and says it should be considered a duty

Question One
What are the most pressing issues during the campaign?

Raul Lara: Homestead property tax exemption on the city's side is not maxed out. Needs to be raised to help the elderly, indigent. 

Saarin Keck : Roads. Her car needs an undercarriage overhaul because of the roads. Sees Council moving that direction to rebuild the roads. Cemeteries cannot receive free or reduced water, but city needs to find a way to assist them.

Natalie Melendez.: Big concern about affordable housing, housing displacement. Huge issue and huge undertaking but she thinks there is a way to start addressing this. A start would be to try to help clear titles. Housing program with experts in building or encouraging affordable housing. City may also be able to help differing cross sections of the population get along better. Senior programs, youth programs.

Mary Lou Saxon: Agrees with homestead exemption, street repair, and the things she brought up in her intro. Long term planning and budgeting for long term street maintenance programs after rebuild. City budget needs to consider everyone.

Manny Baeza: streets are number one. Parking ordinances- setback at intersections for better line of sight clearance for parking. 

Buck Johnston: advocates homestead exemption for people under 65 and larger for seniors. Affordable housing is the biggest issue. Must be addressed. Has been involved in a proposal already for a non profit housing effort trying to build one house. Did not get the land, but there is a way to do this. County has properties, commissioners are discussing auction
We can, as a city, try to get those and build or partner. 
Teamwork is the only way this will work. Experience in affordable housing. Need 30 plus units to really make an impact.
Marfa Shorthorn water tower needs to be repainted. It's faded and needs to be refurbished, for maintenance and pride issues.

Question 2: cost of living, what is city's role and your ideas?

Saarin: agrees it's difficult and we have to try to find a way to get something built. Possibly try to get some very precise legislation passed to help us use some of the hotel motel money to provide housing for hotel employees. 

Natalie.:  Clawing titles is a start. Immediate results possible. Public education series would be effective in gathering community momentum and awareness. Affordable housing is a long term undertaking. Marfa has creativity and vision. Families who have been here should be able to stay.

Mary Lou.: City keeping its own costs down could help homeowners. People coming to mor meeting DNA sharing information could really help us get ideas and momentum. 

Manny.: County would need to be involved. They have the land needed. City could annex and provide services for development. 

Buck.: Manny is right. City must work with county. Tax credits not available for government entities, private developer needs to be brought in to partner. Need bid solutions, ten units are not enough. Eighty percent of Hotel Saint George employees live in Alpine. There is some outside interest from developers to do this but it has to be a team effort .

Raul.:  Must be a team effort between all three taxing entities. Need to bring them all together and find common ground. This is a beautiful community. This room is full. He would like to see every council meeting full.

Question three

Property tax. Nineteen percent of taxes are city of marfa. Is this fair? Remedies?

Natalie. Says that transparency is a good start as to why the taxes are increasing and so high.

Mary Lou.  Housing taxes did not go up for years and got out of adjustment. The adobe addition to taxes may need to be revisited. Her own property taxes have more than doubled. Every taxing entity needs to hold their costs down. 

Manny.  Property values had not been raised in years. Long termers have been challenged by rising taxes and have no intention to leave. Some of these are fair and some are not. No certain remedy for high sales prices.

Buck. Agrees with Manny. Town hall on property taxes would be a good start. Invite certain educated people and leaders to show light, bring discussion. Remedies are unknown at this point. 

Raul. A start is a homestead property tax exemption on the city side. Like the school district. A start.

Saarin. Spends a great deal of time contesting her taxes every year. Takes this personally. Property taxes have been going up and the taxing entities do not lower their rates even when they have an opportunity for lesser spending. Appraisals go up without regard to rhyme or reason. Method needs to be completely overhauled to reflect renovations or lack thereof, etc. State of Texas has set the rules for the most part. 

Question four 
Youth programs, activities?

Mary Lou. Knows that parks dept has done a great job improving parks. Our  REC center could be used for activities for children.

Manny. Says we have come a long way since he was a kid. Parks have made huge pride. Swimming pool is on good shape, but maybe add an after school pr gram like ten years ago. Program was cut, maybe bring something back. Art classes are available but we could add more. MAC center basketball area not being used. 

Buck. Would love for Marfa to have a skate park. Skateboarding has been popular in the past. Great activity for kids. Gives example of having a skate park in the middle of town would allow children to be seen. Not much for kids to do here. Possibly built on donations. Tony Hawk foundation has detailed ways to build them, several builders are willing to partner.

Raul. Mentor program for kids would be great. Many kids only have single parents, could use an older mentor. Kudos to Chinati for their programs but there can be more.

Saarin.   Has a different perspective. Has young kids begging for work at the pizza place. These kids have bills like phones, games and are itching to be able to have their own money. Programs at the school to work in food prep or at the Nutrition Center. Sports and Art programs ar already good. Kids want some money.

Natalie. Loves the idea of a skate park. Thinks the MAC building could be an immediate resource for programming and possible grants. Read marfa and Chinati do a great at job, but the building could host programs on a variety of subjects. A great multi use building. Having children volunteer there with the seniors would be a great idea. 

Question five. What do you love about Marfa and why are you running?

Manny.   People here are the greatest. People wave and the people who were brought up here were raised to be friendly. He is proud to be a member of council, lives the city. He wants to complete the job he has done so far and there are some good things. The Nutrition Center is a great example of a program that might have been cut back ten years ago, has been a great success for our seniors. 

Buck. Love the people. This is the best town in the country. Buildings and light here are great and people take pride in this community. Marfa is special and that's one of the reasons she is running. Thinks we have enough festivals, they may be draining us and are hard on the community. Wants to keep this place special.

Raul. Marfa is his heart. Since being a child. Loves the people. It is safe, people eaten out for each other, can walk the streets at night safely. Appreciated you vote consideration, could add pizzazz to council meetings. 

Saarin. Marfa is a special place. Enjoying living here and having youth employees has kept her and Ronnie youthful. It's a great community. People help each other, day or night. This is not present everywhere. In reality this is the nicest thing about being here. Knowing people's business is annoying at times but it keeps people looking out for each other since they know what's going on. What to be on Council to keep people's voice s heard.

Natalie. This election has literally opened more doors to her at people's homes. Loves the community and the people and the diversity and variety but also the shared culture. Loves that listening is key to being on Council. Really wants to be on it. 

Mary Lou. So grateful for being here for seven years. Wants to give back. Low key environment for productive relaxing activities. Tourists are second to residents in importance. Thinks she can deliver issues to council for the people. 

Audience questions. 

Bob Schwab
Brings up Homestead exemption. No matter which three get elected there are six excellent candidates here. Outstanding answers and great ideas. However, there is a balancing act between keeping taxes low and providing services. Nutrition center program is much smaller than it used to. Council cannot set property tax rates, the market sets those rates. Over the last years city taxes have been raised right below rollback trade and service fees have been raised. Not a lot of return on investment. There has been a big explosion in administration on the city. What can you do to help?

Buck asks for specifics. 
Schwab says how can you better balance giving better service with less overhead? Gives poverty stats in Marfa, which are very high. 
How do you ensure administrative costs go down? He sees a problem with the structure of the system. 

Mary Lou. Says she is not sure about this, but she supports the new city manager's ideas. She is unsure there are easy answers. Los Angeles is having the same type of problem on a grander scale. Maybe our small size can allow us to come up with answers. No answer will be easy.

Buck.  Many conversations about this. Supports our new city manager. Encourages budget sessions and the process to have input and understand where the money is going. One thing is investing in renewable energy for starters, to save money. She h run the numbers on solar installations on city properties. Over twenty years could save a half million dollars. 

Raul. Administrative costs are too high. City administrator came in at 125,000. Very steep for one of the poorest counties in the State. 
Some positions may be able to be squeezed. We have our work cut out for us.

Saarin. Used to be two people in city hall, now many more. New city manager has undertaken a comprehensive look at job descriptions, qualifications and pay rates. Long term this is major progress. 

Natalie supports the new administrator. New Mayor is educating public in city government structure and role. Educating the public is first, them opening a forum for ideas.

Manny. Says gas prices are high because cost of replacing pipes is high, nearly done. Required by state regulations to replace the whole system. Also we're locked into a contract for gas that is finally expiring. Should see some relief soon. 

Rudy Garcia: wants to ask about affordable housing and the homestead exemption. His taxes went up 300%. He was motivated to investigate the appraisal district. Completely irrational methods, no rhyme or reason. Way off. 
Says some taxpayers are getting homestead exemptions for all entities. Exemptions are being granted in ways that are not equitable. People that have higher valuations are paying less because of the way they are granting exemptions. 
How do you propose to finance such affordable housing projects? 
Trey Gerfers says that most of his question is a county and appraisal district issue t candidates can answer the affordable housing issue. 

Buck says that the homestead exemption can encourage people to not do the Air B and B option with their houses. 
As for the affordable housing, besides cooperation from entities, an investor who can get tax credits will be needed. Tax credits are a must to build really anything these days. 

Mary Lou.  Affordable housing. Land location is very important.

Natalie. Clearing titles is first step, perhaps a non profit investment group come in to help get properties. 

Robert Arber question 
Has had trouble talking with council members. Sometimes it is hard to find the person, is there a way to have "office hours" for council members? 

Saarin.  Says she has always  had city council cell numbers and has always called . Maybe there is room for that, but she would be fine with giving out her cell phone if elected. 

Raul.  Says yes, absolutely willing to do that.

Buck. Says that as an elected official she says that she would be available as part of the role and job as a public servant. Come see here anytime. 

Natalie.  Does not recommend coming to her jobs, as they are hectic, but comping to her door at the house would be fine. Available for input at any time possible. 

Mary Lou.  Thinks citizen input is key. Encourages for people to speak at public comment period as that is a great time to put comments out for community conversation. 

Manny.  Likes the idea of a certain time to talk about issues at the Casner Room. Cell calls are important as well. 

What would any of you do to rein in our police force? Thought the County's force was bad, but it is much worse now that the mayor has created her own force. Also, our zoning ordinance is ridiculously exclusionary for new housing and infill.

Saarin. Zoning.  In terms of property tax our zoning code hearts some people. Our zoning board needs to revisit.
Says that she spoke up about not having a police force at all, and the sherif is required to come and other law enforcement agencies can assist. Police force would be unnecessary. Also understood that the police would be smaller. Environments of police state is alarming.

Buck.  Thinks hiring Chief Marquez was a great decision. It is taking him time to get his officers to be more like him. She has an issue with the traffic tickets, too many. We have many State Troopers already pulling people over one every highway. Hurting tourism revenue. Council needs to have a discussion about this come budget time. Police are doing a great job with family violence and the school, but ticketing is overkill. 

Natalie says her understanding is that the police force would be more for oversight. They do have a great response to calls and there are ways to make a complaint, so that s great. Community is over policed  but the marfa PD is providing good service but we should have continual conversations about it. 

Mary Lou. Says that she thinks the police dept has been a successful venture and should always be evaluated.

says he is a great supporter of the Marfa police and they are doing abreast job at the school and with the citizens. The tickets given are for ten mph over the limit and more. I know it seems like  have a lot of police around here but the size of our force is appropriate for the city. 
Zoning board is meeting more and getting things down as far as progress. 

Raul.  Says police are needed. It's a Catch twenty two. His brother was on patrol for they yards and say a lot. Presence is welcome. 

Melissa .
Amtrak stop thoughts?

Buck. Says that she was motivated by the effort to bring this to Marfa. She has been working on this with others. Railroad is smart travel and efficient. Having a train stop makes Marfa a little easier to get to, which is a double edged sword. 
Would live to have a public hearing on this, need to discuss this as a community. 
Went into this totally pro, now interested in feedback.

Raul. Says it can stay in Alpine.

Saarin. Says she would assume the stop in Alpine would be eliminated. No, Sanderson stop would be eliminated. Saarin has no opinion other than talking about it more.

Natalie. Says she will need more time to study.

Mary Lou. Has been pro train and agrees with Buck that more input is needed. There are ways to make the stop for us, by us, and have great design, be an amenity.

Manny.  Says Fowlkes Cattle yard area have two tracks, could really work well. We could bus them in to the hotels. 

Buck.  Says train can stop without two tracks, but need to avoid Alpine station. 

Happy to see diversity of candidates. We have high expectations based on your statements. 
Concern is adobe valuations. Connection of culture, land, history. Have been in conversation with appraisal district for months. 
Adobe is in crisis, faces the future of the city. 
Regarding affordable housing, golf course County land. Feels that everything here now is taken from the older families and given to the newcomers. 
Says that he can offer to teach kids how to make an adobe building. 
Housing problems need to be faced and this can be offered to the city by him.
 Not a question, comment.

Event ends at Eight fifty two. 

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