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Newspaper and Travel Guide
for Pecos Country of West Texas

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

County to see added revenue despite tax cut

Reeves County Commissioners opted to go with the rollback tax rate during a special meeting held Tuesday morning in the third floor courtroom.

The rate is the highest the county can set without trigging the option of a rollback election. However, due to increasing oil and gas valuations within the county, the rollback rate will still result in a 2 1/2 cent cut in the county’s current property tax rate.

Commissioners voted to tentatively set the rate at .379545 cents per $100 in valuations, a drop from last year’s .405456 cent tax rate. Thanks to an increase of over $100 million in valuations, the new rate will still bring the county more money than last year’s rate took in. “We can’t adopt the tax rate until we adopt the budget, but we can decide today on a proposed tax rate,” said county auditor Lynn Owens. “If it exceeds the effective or rollback rate, we would have to vote.”

“You would not make a motion to adopt the tax rate, but a motion to not use the adopted tax rate,” said Reeves County Judge Jimmy B. Galindo.

Owens said that he thought they could adopt a rollback tax rate without holding a public hearing.

“It gets confusing,” said Owens.

He outlined several scenarios for the commissioners and how much revenue it would bring with the different options.

“I gave you several different ways that you could do this and how much revenue it would generate,” said Owens.

Owens said that the county really needed to generate more funds to put in to the Road and Bridges Department. “That department is really strapped and we need to put more funds in to it, but that would also mean taking some funds from the general fund,” said Owens.

“Can you use the rollback tax rate, without having to have an election?” asked Owens.

County tax assessor-collector Elfida Zuniga said that you could use the rollback rate without a rollback election.

“If we have a rollback we might have to give refunds and redo the budget,” said Zuniga. “But the rollback we can adopt, it’s almost at 38 cents,” she said.

“If the court decides to use something other than the effective tax rate and we publish it, we’ll have a public hearing seven days from now,” said Galindo.

“Even with the rollback, it will drop down some, it will be a reduction to the homeowners,” said Zuniga.

“We need to try to maximize our income,” said Owens. “We’ve been hit hard, but we know that homeowners have to,” he said.

Commissioners also approved semi-monthly bills.

Owens said the effective tax rate, which would have brought in the same amount of property tax money as a year ago, was .331618 cents per $100 in valuations. Most of the county’s property tax valuations come from oil and natural gas, which have almost doubled in value over the past six years.

Rains cut festival short, cause problems for city crews

Labor Day weekend rains across Reeves County cut short the Balmorhea Labor Day Festival on Saturday, and kept Town of Pecos City crews busy over the past two days with a number of water-related problems.

As many as two inches of rain fell on some parts of the county, while most of the Permian Basin was under a flash flood watch due to rains coming off Hurricane John, which hit the Mexican west coast on Friday. Even areas that escaped the strongest storms were affected by light drizzle and scatters showers, and forecasts call for a chance of more rain to remain in the forecast for the remainder of the week.

Balmorhea was able to get in the daytime portion of their annual festival on Saturday, but late afternoon rains caused the remaining portion of the event, including a free dance featuring Texas Country Star Tracie Lynn that night, to be cancelled.

In Pecos, street crews were called out to repair potholes caused by the rains, and the water also forced the city to temporarily close down the landfill. Crews also had to deal with a pair of water line breaks over the weekend, one which left much of the northside of Pecos without water on Sunday.

Martin Arreguy said members of his street department crew were out repairing the water line break at U.S. 285 and ‘D’ Street, while city utilities director Edgardo Madrid said workers on Tuesday were busy repair in a pickup-sized sinkhole that formed as a result of a water leak behind the Bell Storage buildings, in the Bell Acres addition on the far west side of town.

Madrid said workers also had to repair damage over the weekend to a fire hydrant that was struck on Cedar Street, and had to do work at one of the city’s lift stations.

Meanwhile, crews also had to work on Labor Day filling holes in city streets caused by both the rains that began in late July and from passing vehicles.

“We did have some city street workers out filling potholes,” Arreguy said. “Where the water is standing it’s getting under and wearing holes in the pavement. We’re filling the potholes up so people don’t damage their front suspensions.”

The most noticeable pothole was at Sixth and Eddy Streets, which has been a problem area during rains over the past few years. Water dug out a previously-repaired pothole and left a hole about 18 inches wide and several inches deep in the southbound lane. A pylon was put in place earlier in the weekend, but was gone on Monday and crews had to make an emergency trip there to fix the damage during a break in the showers.

The street is normally under Texas Department of Transportation maintenance, but Arreguy said, “It’s something that couldn’t wait, because we had people calling in. We’ll help the state out, and the other times they’ll help us out.”

He added that other streets in Pecos that are not under state maintenance face similar problems.

“We haven’t repaved the streets in 40 years or so, so they’re in bad shape,” he said. The city has done seal coating work to extend the life of the streets, but even that has been cut back in recent years due to Pecos’ budget problems.

“I’m looking to get grants so we can begin to repair some of our streets. That’s one of the main things I wanted to do when I took this job,” Arreguy said.

The rains also have left city alleys in muddy condition, but Madrid said it was the rain that’s fallen south of town at the city’s landfill trench that make cause delays in garbage collections this week.

“We shut down the landfill today, and Duncan has been running to Charter in Odessa,” said Madrid. “So they may be a little behind on pick-ups.

“Right now the landfill has a lot of water , and we’re working to get it out,” he said. The city has an arid exemption for its landfill, which permits it to operate without a trench liner, but rainwater leaking through the garbage could possibly lead to groundwater contamination if the trench isn’t dried out.

While Duncan Disposal is running trash collection trucks to the Charter Regional Landfill west of Odessa, the city’s contract with the company ends in December. After that, Pecos is on its own in locating a waste disposal site if the city’s landfill is not usable.

“With the new pit, we’re trying to have a pad put in. That way it will allow us to dump,” Madrid said. “If not, we’ll have to go to Charter or any other landfill pits, like Monahans, if they allow us.”

Council opts to keep taxes at current rate

Town of Pecos City residents will see virtually no change in their property tax rates for the upcoming year, following a vote last week by council members during a special meeting at City Hall.

The council voted to set the city’s tax rate at .81399 cents per $100 in valuations, which is the effective tax rate needed to bring in the same amount of revenue as over the past year. The current tax rate is .81150 cents per $100 in valuations.

“We already did the budget, and we can impose it without having to increase the tax rate,” said city finance director Sam Contreras. He added that the new budget also includes retention of the stipend rates paid to Pecos Police Department employees that his department discovered had been $80,000 over their planned amounts for the past 22 months.

“All that is already included in the budget,” said Contreras, after council members voted 4-1 at the meeting to maintain the current stipend rates.

Unlike Reeves County, the Pecos-Barstow-Toyah ISD or the Reeves County Hospital District, the city has not benefited from increases in oil and gas valuations in recent years, which have allowed those taxing entitles to collect additional revenue without raising taxes. County and hospital district valuations have increased 86 percent in the past six years and the school district’s valuations are up 94 percent, while the city’s valuations have fallen 3.4 percent during that same time period.

Lydia Preito, who calculates the city’s tax and debt collection rates under a contract with the Pecos-Barstow-Toyah ISD, told the council the city could raise the tax rate as high as .85198 cents without triggering the option for a rollback election. She also said out of the new .81399-cent tax rate, .25309 of that is for debt service for repaying construction project bonds.

Prieto also told the council that the city collected about two percent more in property taxes than predicted for the past year. Pecos received just over $300,000, while Preito had projected total collections at $294,000, based on a 94 percent debt collection rate.

While council members voted to set the tax rate, they also continued to discuss the fiscal year 2007 budget as part of a workshop that followed the Aug. 30 vote on the tax rate, with the main question being the compensation rate the city will receive from the U.S. Marshal’s Service for housing inmates at the Criminal Justice Center.

“The CJC is still running a deficit of a little over $100,000,” Contreras said, while city manager Joseph Torres said Pecos is still awaiting word from Carla Flanagan of the Marshal’s Service on how much the agency is willing to pay the city.

The two sides signed an agreement five years ago to house federal prisoners awaiting trial or sentencing at the CJC, which was built as a result of the agreement. However, the U.S. Department of Labor ordered the city to increase the pay scales for jailers at the facility to the mandated federal rate 18 months after the facility opened. The mandate did not come with an increase in the funds the city was receiving from the Marshal’s Service, leading to the current deficit.

Torres said the city continues to work with aides from U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla and Sen. John Cornyn’s offices in Washington, along with Rick Reyes, the consultant hired by Pecos to negotiate a new agreement with the Marshal’s Service.

Contreras said most city departments didn’t ask for major budget increases this year, other than vehicle purchases, and that aside from the CJC, the main remaining question is the status of Pecos Volunteer Fire Department and Pecos EMS. Department heads there were seeking assistance with Social Security (FICA) withholding taxes and were seeking a determination of whether or not the departments and their top officials were contract workers or city employees.

“”If they’re governed by a contract, they’re contractors,” Torres said. “The IRS has asked we submit information on how the employee-employer relationship exists.”

Torres said both sides have been asked by the IRS to submit information, while Contreras said it may be possible to do the FICA withholding when the new computer system software is fully implemented.

Contreras added that too keep the worker’s pay at the same rate while withholding FICA, the city would have boost the workers’ pay by about 7 percent.

On the vehicle purchases, council members discussed approving only one of three new patrol vehicles requested by the police department.

“They’re in pretty bad shape. If we wait until next year there will be two cars, plus one other,” said councilman Frank Sanchez. “I talked to officer (Ernest) Lazcano, and he said he has to jump-start his car every morning.”

Council members also heard from Pecos Municipal Airport Manager Isabel Blanchard, who was asking about the city’s plan to rework her contact for services. Those initially included a cut in benefits.

“My understanding is we were going to discuss this,” she said. Torres said the contract remained under discussion.

Fraud cases net guilty pleas, sentencings in federal court

Federal court has been a busy place these past few weeks, with several defendants being sentenced in Midland for a variety of crimes.

On Tuesday, Aug. 29, United States Attorney Johnny Sutton announced that 67-year-old Paul Thorpe of Midland was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison followed by three years of supervised release for orchestrating a 10-year-old mail fraud scheme that defrauded investors out of more than $1.7 million.

In addition to the prison term, United States District Judge Robert Junell ordered that Thorpe make full restitution to his victims.

On May 15, 2006, Thorpe pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud. Thorpe admitted that from 1995 through 2005, he defrauded more than 20 individuals from as far away as Alaska. Thorpe had promised he would invest their money - anywhere from $10,000 to $350,000 - on their behalf in various offshore entities and/or in a local aircraft-manufacturing project. In reality, Thorpe acknowledged in his plea, he merely used the money to pay off earlier investors as part of an elaborate “Ponzi” scheme.

This case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Assistant United States Attorneys Sandra Beckner and John Klassen prosecuted this case on behalf of the government.

Sutton announced that on Aug. 30, in Midland that Casey Daniel Martin, 26, of Midland, pleaded guilty in federal court to one count each of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine and possession of a firearm during a drug trafficking crime. As a result, Martin faces between five years and life in federal prison and a maximum $500,000 fine.

Chad William Stone, 27, also of Midland, and Martin’s co-defendant, pled guilty to possession of a firearm during a drug trafficking crime, and similarly faces five years to life imprisonment and a maximum $250,000 fine.

Appearing separately before United States Magistrate Judge L. Stuart Platt, both admitted that they had possessed firearms while committing a methamphetamine trafficking crime in Midland and Lubbock in early February of this year. According to court documents, Martin admitted that they had been “ripped off” during a prior drug deal in Lubbock and that they took the firearms to the February drug deal because, “that wasn’t going to happen again.” Both additionally admitted that they stole five firearms, a Chevy Van, cash, valuable coins and other items in Midland and Martin Counties in February before transporting the stolen items across interstate lines into New Mexico and beyond. Authorities in Salt City, Utah, found Martin and Stone in March 2006.

They remain in federal custody pending sentencing scheduled for November 2006, before Junell.

This case was investigated by the Midland Police Department, Stanton Police Department and Texas Rangers. Assistant United States Attorney Jeff Parras prosecuted this case on behalf of the government.

Also, on Aug. 30, Sutton said that in Midland, Jon Mark Whitaker, 38, of Midland, pled guilty in federal court to one count of mail fraud. As a result, Whitaker faces up to 20 years in federal prison, a maximum $250,000 fine and restitution.

By pleading guilty, Whitaker admitted that in 2004 and 2005, while doing business as “Homes by Whitaker,” he was engaged by two families to act as construction manager for new homes to be built in Midland.

Whitaker was to receive a monthly fee for his services. All invoices for supplies and subcontractor services provided in connection with the construction of the homes were to be presented to these customers for payment without mark-up.

Beginning approximately November 2004, and continuing until approximately November 2005, Whitaker devised a scheme to defraud the customers in the construction of their respective homes as well as the suppliers and subcontractors who provided goods and services in the course of the construction of those homes. Prosecutors said Whitaker would submit numerous invoices for payment to the customers that were fake, grossly inflated, and/or unrelated to the construction of their homes. When he did so, Whitaker admitted to making false representations that the invoices were true and accurate, and/or that the invoices reflected goods and services that were genuinely supplied in connection with the construction projects.

It was further part of the fraudulent scheme that Whitaker would engage subcontractors and suppliers to provide goods and services for the customers’ construction projects, and then fail to pay them even though he was often receiving inflated payments for their invoices from his customers. Periodically, Whitaker would make false representations and promises to these subcontractors and suppliers that they would be fully paid, when in fact Whitaker had no other intention but to knowingly send them, at times using the U.S. mail, insufficient checks or, at best, partial payments as a means to lull them into staying on the job.

Overall, the indictment alleges that Whitaker stole in excess of $500,000 from his customers, unpaid suppliers and subcontractors. This case was investigated by the Midland Police Department and prosecuted by Parras.

Couple announce birth of daughter

Aaliyah Kiana Lira was born On Aug. 24, in Odessa Regional Hospital.

Little Aaliyah weighed seven pounds, six ounces and was 191/2 inches long at birth.

Her parents are Albert Lira and Theresa Strain.

Grandparents are Alfredo and JoAnna Lira and Edward and Rosemary Strain.

Strain celebrates sixth birthday

Amanda Strain celebrated her sixth birthday on Aug. 31, with her family and friends.

The group enjoyed an outing to Odessa to the skating rink and shopping.

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324 S. Cedar St., Pecos, TX 79772
Phone 432-445-5475, FAX 432-445-4321

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