Presidio County Democratic candidates address county issues in public forum
By SARAH M. VASQUEZ
MARFA – Six candidates running for office in the March 4 primary election sat in the hot seats Monday night as Presidio County Democratic Party Chair Buck Johnston asked each one questions pertaining to the office they are seeking. The dim lighting in the Highland Annex gave the forum more of an interrogation feel. Several takeaways from the forum included the candidates’ stances on Marfa’s housing issue, solar power company abatements, and county government priorities.
Whichever precinct 1 Justice of the Peace candidate is elected – Luis Pippen, David Beebe or Juan Lara – their duties would include performing weddings, presiding over misdemeanor criminal charges in JP court, and pronouncing death when a resident dies in an unattended manner or at accident scenes.
Pippen said his experience working with the Alpine Memorial Funeral Home for the past three years will help him fulfill the JP’s duty as county coroner.
“I’ve been through the justice’s court a couple of times in my past, and I see it’s real easy to take traffic tickets and fines and whatnot,” Pippen also said.
As a young family man from Marfa, he said he’s eager to learn the trade of being the JP and helping his community as he’s seen the best and the worst in Marfa living here over the years.
“I just want to be part of making it better. I don’t want to just stop with Justice of the Peace. I want to continue learning and working with the political systems and trying to get more stuff for Marfa, for the people in Marfa to help it grow and maintain itself,” said Pippen.
As a City Council member and local businessman, Beebe said his experience with government agencies make him uniquely qualified for JP. He has a dialog with the sheriff’s department. He has already started conversations with current JP Cinderela Guevara, County Judge Paul Hunt, Marfa ISD Superintendent Andrew Peters, and County Attorney John Fowlkes for his “pie-in-the-sky” idea of mentoring juvenile delinquents, which he thinks he’s uniquely suited.
“I think I have the time, and I don’t have any children of my own. I have energy to be able to dedicate some time to working with these kids,” said Beebe.
His other priorities for the county if elected include stabilizing the county’s economy and bridging the gap with Presidio County citizens.
Lara wasn’t in attendance due to an illness.
County Judge incumbent Hunt heavily stressed his three priorities for Presidio County: a unit maintenance system, economic development, and interlocal cooperation. Unit maintenance is typically used in rural areas, sharing equipment and personnel among the four commissioner precincts. Hunt believes this is a good model that works for cities and bigger counties and needs to be implemented to continue the follow-through in Presidio County.
The county has an economic development program policy in place that conforms to the state’s tax code and is up for renewal in March. Within the policy’s four key areas, housing, utility infrastructure, health services, and transportation infrastructure, the county uses this policy to offer tax abatements, which helps build a tax base.
“That allows us to lower our tax rates. We’ve been lowering our tax rates each year since I’ve been in office, and we’ve been building that tax base,” said Hunt.
Hunt said interlocal cooperation is required for economic development, for efficient unit maintenance, and to help build trust among the communities.
“I would strongly urge that you look for people in the county that are going to serve those leadership in those three areas,” said Hunt.
Marfa resident Malinda Beeman asked during the short Q&A session at the end of the forum about solar power tax abatements. It has been previously reported that several solar power companies are interested in Presidio County to build solar plants, and one prospective site is just east of the Antelope Hills area where Beeman lives. She said a lot of people are supportive of solar power, but asked the candidates what is their criteria or standard that would be used and what the County Judge and County Commissioners would consider an appropriate project, where it would be located, and the impact on the nearby residents.
Hunt replied with the example of the solar power plant near the city of Presidio and the giant battery, known as “Bob” for “big old battery,” which helped Presidio survive the ice storm that took out power in the Big Bend region in late November. Because of “Bob,” Presidio was hardly affected by the power outage unlike the neighboring towns. To him, that’s what utility infrastructure is all about and would like to see those kind of improvements come in Marfa where they can make the most use for them and add to the tax base.
County Commissioner Precinct 4 candidates, including incumbent Frank (Buddy) Knight and opponent Loretto Vasquez, had varied views on tax abatements. Vasquez feels abatements are something that have to be decided by the commissioners with the input of the people, but that the solar infrastructure is essential to economic growth for the county. Overall, he thinks it’s a good thing for the county, but it has to be done methodically.
When Knight looks at a tax abatement, he said he looks at several things, such as what the properties are paying now and how much investment would it be with the abatement. He thinks solar energy is great, but looks at each company differently.
“I know at this time in our county, we need infrastructure for any taxing we can get. That doesn’t mean anybody has a green light on an abatement, not at all,” said Knight.
Born and raised in Marfa, Vasquez is retired after working with the U.S. Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He’s served on the MISD school board and is currently on the Presidio County Appraisal District Review Board. He said he’s particularly qualified in knowing the property values in Marfa and the taxes that take place, so he’s interested in keeping the tax base low.
If elected, he said, he wouldn’t take the full commissioner’s pay of $1,492 per month. Instead, he stressed if he’s elected, he would work for a smaller salary of $500 per month with health insurance. His main concern is the county’s finances.
“If I need to do something about it, that’s where I’m going to start with myself,” said Vasquez.
Knight said he’s uniquely qualified to keep his commissioner’s seat because he’s honest and trustworthy. He said he won’t tell people what they want to hear.
“I will be straightforward with you. I’m certainly not going to tell you what you want to hear and go the other way,” said Knight, the industrial technology instructor at Marfa ISD whose many students have won state awards.
Some of his county priorities include financial stability and to give the county residents the best possible service that he can and communication between other cities. To him, housing is key, especially for the working people.
County Treasurer candidate Frances L. Garcia said she was nervous speaking in front of the 40 attendees in the Annex. “As long as it has nothing to do with public speaking, I know I can do a good job for the Treasurer’s office,” said Garcia, as the audience broke into laughter and light applause.
Garcia said the skills and strengths that separate her from her opponent, Katie Buren Sanchez, is her overall knowledge of mandating county protocol including financial management, legal procedures and important liaison with other county offices and state agencies with “none of the adversarial relationships that now prevail.”
Garcia echoed several of the candidates’ priorities, including straightening out the county’s finances and better communication within the county’s offices. Garcia has worked with the county for 12 years, working her first six years in the county/district clerk’s office and the last six years in the county attorney’s office. Because of her experience, she said she is familiar with the state and local fees and fines.
County Treasurer candidate Sanchez was unable to make the forum on Tuesday night. Unopposed District/County Clerk incumbent Virginia “Virgie” Pallarez was not in attendance, and County Judge candidate Guevara was unable to attend the forum due to family situations.
Sarah M. Vasquez is not related to candidate Loretto Vasquez.