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Friday, January 13, 2006

City seeks answer to repaying grant

Staff Writer

Town of Pecos City is facing a ban on seeking new Office of Rural Community Affairs grants, until they figure out a way to repay nearly $400,000 from a four-year-old ORCA grant for construction of new housing in the central part of the city.

The council was briefed on the situation by city utilities director Edgardo Madrid, and discussed possible options for solving the problem during their meeting Thursday morning at City Hall. Council members also approved a new bill collection contract for ambulance services, after being updated on the service by Pecos EMS Chief Dennis Thorp as part of the meeting.

The city received an ORCA grant in 2002 for construction of up to 20 homes in the Airlawn Addition along West Washington Street. Eleven of the 20 homes had to go to low-income residents, under terms of the agreement.

However, Madrid said despite working with mortgage companies, the city has only been able to qualify one family for the 1,000 to 1,200 square foot homes, which are priced in the $55,000 to $60,000 range.

The city already has received extensions from ORCA on repaying the grant, which comes due again in March, and Madrid said while the city can get another extension, grant writer Carlos Colina Vargas said failure to repay will affect the city’s ability to receive any new grants.

“He explained to use if we don’t do anything we won’t be able to apply for future grants through ORCA,” Madrid said.. “If you go more than three years with an extension, they’re going to say you’re not going to be able to apply for any more grants.”

He said ORCA had funded the city’s recent grant to fix water and sewer lines to meet state requirements. Future funds like those would not be available until the housing loan is repaid.

Madrid said one option discussed would substitute apartments for some of the 20 homes, which would allow some of the low-income families to qualify by making rent instead of mortgage payments. A number of people who have applied for housing loans have falling about $20,000 short of the money needed to build any new structure, since the requirements included a combined income of $27,000 or less for a married couple.

Madrid also said the city could look at doing the housing construction themselves instead of contracting out to save costs, which could get the price of the homes down to where more families can meet the mortgage requirements.

“I know it’s a desperate idea, but we don’t have the money to sent back to the state, and it’s almost $400,000,” Madrid said.

He said a fuller report on the situation and the possible options would be presented to the council in about a month.

“We keep getting extensions, but eventually we’ll have to pay the piper,” councilman Frank Sanchez said.

Earlier, the council approved changing the ambulance service’s bill collection contract from NRS to Intermedix, effective on March 1. Thorp said under the current deal with NRS, the city collected $140,000 out of a total of $300,000 in billings last year, almost all of that from people who were insured.

“We collected 41 1/2 percent, which is as good as we’ve ever done, but a lot of money is still being left on the table,” Thorp said. “There’s still vast improvement that can be done.” He said Intermedix gave EMS personnel information on their bill collection system, which includes software that provides instant billing from Pecos EMS to the company.

“They are well ahead of anyone we ever looked at,” Thorp said. He said NRS did not have a computer billing system option, and that a number of billing errors had been made as a result, while the third company looked at, AR Concepts, had a pricier and more complicated software package.

Under the contract, Intermedix would received 12 percent of any bill collected, 2 percent above NRS’s current deal, but Thorp said higher collection rates should make up for that difference.

The NRS deal calls for a 30-day termination notice, which city attorney Scott Johnson said contained no penalty. The new contract is a four-year deal with a 90-day termination notice, and will take effect on March 1.

Council members then approved the new agreement unanimously. Thorp said NRS would continue to handle any bill collections on ambulance calls made up to that date.

In going over Pecos EMS operations, Thorp told the council that while the number of calls has remained around 825 annually, the number of calls to the Balmorhea area has increased from seven in 2003 to 48 last year.

“Our fuel costs are up a lot due to their calls, and the ambulance is out of service longer due to the length of those calls,” he said.

Thorp did say a grant was received to install a new repeater on Gomez Peak, near the Interstate 10 junction with I-20. The repeater improves communications to Pecos for EMS crews operating both in southern Reeves County and to the north of Pecos.

Slack expects to be ordered off RB board

Red Bluff Water Power Control District board members are still awaiting an opinion from the Texas Attorney General’s office on the status of Richard C. Slack on the district’s board. But Slack said on Tuesday he expects to be leaving the board soon, due to state laws that prohibit holding two paid elected offices at one time.

Slack read a letter from Austin attorney David B. Brooks at the start of the board’s January meeting, held on Tuesday in Pecos, in which he agreed with the opinion of Douglas G. Caroom, attorney for Reeves County Water Improvement District No. 2, that Slack cannot serve on the board after being appointed as Reeves County Attorney in October. But the two lawyers differ in the question of when Slack must step down from his position.

Slack represents Reeves County WID2 on the board, and was named county attorney following the resignation of Luis Carrasco at the end of October, after it was revealed he was under investigation for misappropriation of funds. Caroom’s opinion was given at the request of Alan Zeman, president of the Reeves County WID2 board, and said that Slack had to resign immediately after his appointment in early November.

“His opinion was I was automatically off the moment I took the oath as county attorney,” Slack said. “So I asked this attorney down there, a fellow named Brooks, who has a reputation for being real good about this.

“He said the law says you cannot hold two positions of remuneration, regardless of whether you accept the pay or not,” said Slack, who has not been paid by the Red Bluff board since the district’s October meeting, and did not vote on items before the board at the November and December meetings.

However, he then read a letter from Brooks, that said “…the constitution also requires that officeholders stay on the job as holdovers until their successors are appointed and sworn in. … Therefore, you may continue to exercise full authority with red Bluff until someone is appointed to succeed you, although there is no time frame within which this must be done.” Red Bluff Managing Director Randall Hartman said the district would still await a ruling by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office before taking any further action.

“I plan to abide by the attorney general’s decision. Until then, I don’t think we need to do anything,” he said.

Hartman explained to board member Ava Gerke that while Slack represents Reeves County WID2 on the Red Bluff board, and that sub-district’s president was the one who brought the conflict to light, the sub-district has no direct say in who represents their area on the Red Bluff board.

“His obligations are to the board, period, not what they want,” he said. “It’s not what they want us to do, it’s what we do. We’re completely different from them.”

“That doesn’t sound like a little qualm to me. It sounds like something the district needs to resolve,” said Gerke, who represented Ward County Water Irrigation District No. 3 on the board.

“We will have an election at the proper time and elect a new member for the board,” Hartman said, while adding that a check of some of the district’s old by-laws showed that some people within Ward County WID1 might be eligible to vote in the Reeves County WID2 election.

Red Bluff elections normally are held in May. Board secretary Robin Prewit said the district can appoint someone to the board to fill a vacancy if a special election date is missed, and that person can serve until the next special election date comes around.

Red Bluff Auditor Randy Graham noted later in the meeting that along with Slack’s status, elected Ward County Water Irrigation District No. 1 representative Tom Nance has not been to the last several meetings, leaving the board with only five of its seven available voting members.

“This is something you need to resolve,” said Graham, noting the district has to have at least four members available to have a quorum for their meetings.

First Choice electric pact given approval by council

Pecos City Council members agreed to go back to longtime electric provider First Choice Power Co. on Thursday, signing a three year contract that will reduce the city’s power bill by $3,000 a year from the current agreement.

The council voted to re-sign with First Choice, the distribution arm of Texas-New Mexico Power Co., as part of a lengthy agenda in the first meeting of the year for the council.

Members also approved the budget for the Pecos Economic Development Corp for 2005-06, approved grant application requests from the Pecos Police Department, the West of the Pecos Rodeo Committee and Reeves County Hospital, and discussed several other items during the two-hour meeting.

City accountant Mark Rushing presented the council with the proposals received by the city for electric services. Rushing, who was speaking in place of city finance director Sam Contreras, who was sick, said 10 companies were solicited for proposals, but only three, First Choice, TXU and the city’s current power provider, Tara Energy, send back proposals by the deadline.

Rushing said the proposals were based on the 4.7 million kilowatt hours of electricity used during 2005, and contracts of one, two and three years were offered.

“With First Choice we would go up less than one percent on a 12 month contract, and less than one percent on a 24-month contract, and our cost would decrease on a three-year contract,” he said. “With Tara, our cost would go up 22 percent in one year, 21 percent for two years and 19 percent for three years.”

“TXU is pretty close to First Choice,” Rushing said, with increases of 2.9, 2.8 and 1.7 percent for one, two or three-year deals. He said the three-year deal with First Choice would be $9,000 lower over three-years than the one-year contract the council currently has with Tara.

“Bidding out in the middle of the winter is the worst time to go to market, but it’s to our advantage right now, because you have this anomalie in natural gas prices,” Rushing said. He explained that electric prices are down right now, because natural gas production has outstripped consumption recently, but that the bids offered could change by next week. “My recommendation is we contract for three years with First Choice,” Rushing said. In response to councilman Frank Sanchez, a former Texas-New Mexico Power Co. employee, Rushing said the deal also includes no surcharge if the city exceeds the 4.7 million kwh power use from this past year.

“I think in the future there’s going to be more abundance in electrical energy, because they’re fixing to build new plants,” Sanchez said, while councilman Danny Rodriguez said, “It seems to me the way to go is three years. Everything is going up.”

In the end, the council voted 4-0 to go with the three-year deal with First Choice power, with the option to blend and extend the deal. Sanchez, due to his past connections with the company the resulted in pension benefits, abstained from voting.

Board members were briefed on the PEDC budget by president Mike Burkholder and board chairman Joe Keese. Council members were given the budget numbers through Jan. 11 that showed $61,740 in current assets, with $50,000 earmarked towards purchasing land owned by the city and the Pecos Housing Authority along Interstate 20 for economic development.

He said the PEDC was ahead by $2,400 in income from what was budgeted in 2005, while expenses came in at $10,000 below budget, according to the district’s audit.

Burkholder said he and the PEDC board were against one suggestion by auditor Dan Painter that the board hold monthly meetings. “We had eight meetings last year, which was about every month and a half. The by-laws state we have to have a meeting every quarter,” Burkholder said, adding that the PEDC’s spending is too limited to justify monthly meetings.

“We only write 6-7 checks a month, and I pretty much keep people on the board informed, including on finances,” he said. “I call meetings when I feel it’s necessary.”

Keese later represented the Rodeo Committee in requesting approval to seek a $10,000 Texas Yes! Hometown Stars Program, through the Texas Department of Agriculture. “It’s a 50-50 match for events designed to bring people into the community,” he told the council. The money is being sought to increase TV and newspaper advertising for the 2006 West of the Pecos Rodeo in surrounding areas, in an effort to increase attendance.

“I think if you’ve been out to the rodeo recently, there are a couple of days where it gets pretty slim,” Keese said. Along with the extra advertising, Keese said the rodeo committee is looking at additional specialty acts and other entertainment to attract more fans to the 2006 rodeo.

“It will not cost the city anything, “ Keese said. “It’s a pure matching grant and we have money in the budget.”

Council members approved the request for the grant, with Pecos Police Chief and former rodeo committee president Clay McKinney named as the city official who will sign for and handle the grant application.

McKinney will also handle the $3,000 grant requested by Reeves County Hospital to help boost promotion for April’s Reeves County Health Fair. “Although we’re not a tourist event, we’re a long-standing event,” said Venetta Seals director of special services for the hospital.

She said while the hospital is its own taxing entity, “The hospital doesn’t have resolutions, so we are coming before you to ask for a resolution for this grant.

The grant being sought by the police department is for a 6-wheel vehicle through the federal Operation Ranger grant program. The grant would fully fund purchase of the vehicle, McKinney said, while adding that there were many other agencies competing for the same grant. Red Bluff sets water releases, gets good audit By JON FULBRIGHT Staff Writer Red Bluff Water Power Control District has more money and more water than a year ago, board members were told in two separate reports on Tuesday, during their first monthly meeting of 2006. Board members set water allotments for 2006 during the meeting, after being told that the level of Red Bluff Lake was up to 128,000 acre/feet at the end of 2005, despite the drought conditions in the Trans-Pecos region over the past several months. They were also told by auditor Randy Graham that increases in oil and gas royalties helped boost total revenues by $117,000 from 2004’s totals. Board members voted to keep both the total amount of water and the cost the same as in 2005, which was the first time in four years the district had been able to release water on a normal schedule, due to the region’s drought that left Red Bluff Lake’s level as low as 30,000 acre/feet in 2002. Total allotment for 2006 will by 25,000 acre/feet, which will require the release of about 50,000 acre/feet from the lake, in order for the allotment to reach the seven sub-districts after evaporation and absorption along the Pecos River. But board members did discuss the timing of the releases, which won’t get underway until March 1. Board member Ava Gerke said some farmers in her district needed water before then for winter alfalfa. Managing Director Randall Hartman said water before then could come from the remaining 2005 allotment. Gerke’s Ward County Water Irrigation District No. 3 already has used 119 acre/feet over its 2005 allotment as of Dec. 31, but overall 5,559 acre/feet from the 2005 allotment remained unused as of the end of the year. Hartman said that while the final allotment requests aren’t due in until April 15, the sub- districts could decide how much water they want for early release to farmers starting on March 1. “We’ll make the water available. They can adjust for themselves when they want to run it,” he said. “After March 1, if you pay for it, you can get it,” said board member Jay Lee. “Let them do it that way, instead of everybody having a special meeting.” Hartman said farmers who need water early could make early payments to their sub-districts, and that water would be added to the district’s final allotment request on April 15. In going over the 2005 audit, Graham told the board that total revenues were $516,000 last year, up from $399,000 in 2004 the bulk of that came from a $106,000 increase in royalty payments, due to increased drilling and extraction on land owned by the district in Reeves and Loving counties. The district’s fund balance overall stood at $4.5 million, with $4.6 million in assets and only $100,000 in liabilities. Graham did say the district had increased legal expenses, due to its fight with Ward County Water Irrigation District No. 1 and Ward WID3 over their voting status on the board, which was resolved in the sub-district’s favor last summer. And he said that due to lower interest rates, the district was short $30,000 in benefit contributions for its employees, but added, “As interest rates go up, that problem with cure itself.” Graham also presented the board with a five-year summary of the district’s finances, and noted the sharp rise in both water sales and oil payments in the past two years. “You went two years without any water sales at all, and the oil and gas revenues have really gone up over the last five years,” he said. Graham also said the district should take some of its funds and set them aside for maintenance of Red Bluff Dam. District secretary Robin Prewit said that while that had not been done in the past, the board recently voted to add the dam maintenance funds to the budget, starting in 2006.

Chamber members get update on stock show, candidate events

Several events will be taking place this weekend in Pecos at the Reeves County Civic Center, Pecos Chamber of Commerce members were told during their monthly board of directors meeting, held Tuesday at the Senior Citizens Center.

“The Annual Reeves County Livestock Show and Sale will be held Friday and Saturday at the Civic Center,” said Chamber of Commerce Director Linda Gholson. FFA and 4-H members are selling tickets for the barbecue, which will be held Saturday during the livestock show, according to Gholson.

At the same time, Friday evening at 7 p.m., at the civic center, there will be a Meet the Candidates Chili Supper for local candidates in the March 7 Democratic Party primary election.

“The stock show will be held in the old part of the civic center and the chili supper in the new part,” said Gholson.

Gholson said on Saturday afternoon, “There will also be a swim meet and several of the teams from the swim meet will be taking their group out to the civic center to eat barbecue,” said Gholson.

The stock show will also include “cobbler contest.” “Anyone who has a really good cobbler recipe can go join the fun and enter the contest,” said Gholson.

The Women’s Division of the chamber will be busy decorating the civic center on Tuesday, Jan. 24 for the annual Chamber of Commerce Awards Banquet, scheduled for Jan. 26. “You don’t have to be a female to go help out, they do need strength and height,” said Gholson.

“We appreciate all the nominees for the awards,” said board member Venetta Seals. “But we want to stress that it can be anybody in the community that does the nominating.”

Seals said that a lot of people don’t realize that they can nominate someone for the awards. “People have the idea that they have to be chamber members or directors, and that’s not true,” she said.

Seals said that anyone can do the nominating, it doesn’t have to be a business or anyone involved in the chamber.

“It could be someone that maybe had a good experience, maybe with an EMT or a firefighter,” said Seals. “We encourage everyone to think of this for the following years.” “It’s always a difficult process, choosing the winners of the awards,” said Seals.

Board member Bill Oglesby reported to the group that the brochures featuring Pecos were completed and passed some around to the group.

“We had a lot of help on this and even at the end we kept coming up with new ideas for the brochure,” said Oglesby. “We’re still working on the sign out at the park and several other things,” he said.

The colorful brochure features things that Pecos is proud of and that the community has to offer, according to Oglesby.

Joe Keese, the new West of the Pecos Rodeo Committee President, said that the committee is looking for new ideas to attract more people to attend the local event.

“We’re competing against a large number of rodeos and we want more cowboys to come to Pecos,” said Keese.

Keese said that in the past the committee has been struggling with the turnout.

“We’ve been working diligently to make this a bigger and better event and attract more cowboys and more people,” he said.

Keese said that they are also thinking of ways to get more individuals to volunteer. “If you work one day at the rodeo, we’ll give you a ticket to go to the rodeo,” said Keese. “We’re hoping to have more promotions like this to get more people to volunteer.”

Other things the group is working on to get more people to volunteer are T-shirts and other promotional items.

“Hopefully we’ll bring in other acts to the rodeo and bring in more people,” he said. “We’re trying to use the advertising money to promote and bring in more people to the rodeo.”

Board member John Grant that he had been asked if the chamber would like to host a debate between the candidates in the March election.

“This would give the candidates an opportunity to debate each other,” said Grant. Gholson told the group that if the chamber were to host such an event they would need to pay for an out-of-town mediator and possibly provide more security.

“The chamber would also have to pay for it to be aired on KTPX-KIUN,” said Grant. A motion was made that the chamber consider hosting the event and Grant be in charge of finding out more information.

“We can have Mr. Grant and two other directors come up with something and present it to the board at the February meeting,” said chamber president Jimmy Dutchover.

The group also approved the new directors. A committee counted the ballots this week and the names approved included: Frank Gomez, John Grant, Jay Haney, Saul Herrera, Jim Ivey, Martin McDaniel, Lydia Prieto and Brenda Wein.

Chamber president also had the option to appoint four directors at his discretion. His appointees included: Rosie Flores, Ascencion Banuelos, Oscar Ramirez and Sue Ybarra.

Pecan Show attracts several entries

TransPecos Bank hosted the Annual Pecan Show in December, along with a Pecan Food Show featuring a variety of baked goods with pecans.

Grand Champion and first place winner was Bill Oglesby with his Choctaw pecans and first place with Stuart pecans.

Ronald Box placed first in the Wichita variety; Phil Land second in the Stuart variety and Manuel Gomez third in the Stuart variety. The Teal Family placed first with their Western variety and Delfa Rivas took second place in the Western variety.

W.R. Oglesby won second place in the Cheyenne variety and the Teal Family placed first in the category.

The Teal Family was also named Reserve Champions.

In the Pecan Food Show, Emily Rodriguez placed first; Melissa Box placed second in the adult category; Rita Gilbreath took third place and Laura Teal placed fourth.

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