Downtown Midland (Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)
Early voting for the 2018 midterm elections is well underway in West Texas. Between school board, city, county, statewide and national seats, voters in Midland have quite a few decisions to make on the ballot this go round.
Marfa Public Radio’s Sally Beauvais introduces the at-large candidates for Midland’s City Council.
Carlos Morales: So the only contested race for City Council in Midland is for the at-large positions, can you tell us more about how that works, Sally?
Sally Beauvais: Sure. So these potential city council members aren’t assigned to represent a specific district. They’re city-wide candidates. And voters will actually be choosing their top two. So out of the three running, two will be elected to serve in this at-large capacity.
CM: And the 3 men vying for seats this term are real estate developer Chase Gardaphe, incumbent Spencer Robnett, and former City Councilman Michael Trost. Sally, what are the big issues for this city council race so far?
SB: Growth and infrastructure are huge. Of course, the booming industry in the Permian Basin touches pretty much every corner of the community in one way or another. Roads and utilities and housing are not exactly keeping up. And City Council members have a tricky balancing act in front of them here — they have to meet that immediate demand that’s right in front of them, but they also have to develop and plan smart for the long term. And we all know that’s hard in a boom bust economy.
CM: And Sally, we should also mention taxes. Candidates this race have been talking about whether to reinstate that 4B sales tax that voters opted to eliminate last year, and also whether raising property taxes is the right way to meet the demands of the city budget.
SB: Right. Let’s go ahead and start there because taxing is a pretty divisive issue among this group. So first up, Chase Gardaphe. He’s a real estate developer who specializes in affordable housing. And he says that expertise is going to help him traverse the murky waters of the tight housing situation in Midland. He also sits on the Planning and Zoning Commission. Here’s Gardaphe.
CHASE GARDAPHE: “We need to invest heavily so that we can have communities come in and it not be a strain on our current infrastructure. I think it’s very important to encourage developers to come to Midland. But we also have to encourage responsible development. We have to live with the developments that are being brought to our town even after the developers have made their money back and moved on.”
SB: And when it comes to how taxes play into the infrastructure needs here, Gardaphe is maybe the more neutral candidate. He says reinstating the 4B sales tax would certainly help raise revenue for the city, and he would want those dollars to be dedicated specifically to infrastructure. But for him it’s ultimately up to the voters to decide whether they want to reinstate that, and he feels it’s his job to represent what taxpayers want.
CM: Sally as I understand it, property taxes did get raised in Midland this year, and our incumbent candidate for at-large city council in Midland says that was the right move.
SB: Right, thats Spencer Robnett. He didn’t respond to our requests for an interview, but Robnett did speak at a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters in Midland several weeks ago. Here he is.
ROBNETT: “The city of Midland property tax levy that you pay today, that we just passed in this year’s fiscal year budget — 18 to 19 — only covers 90% of our police and fire operating budgets every year. There is a conversation to be had about cutting tax rates, that conversation’s not now. There’s 300 billion dollars in upstream investment planned in the Permian Basin in the next 5 years, and the way that we do what we’ve been doing — to keep a balanced budget — is through partnerships.”
SB: So, Robnett says even at the raised rate, property tax revenue is not enough to cover the city’s growing financial needs. That could mean Robnett’s in favor of another raise in property taxes. Midland still has one of the lowest rates in the state. He is in favor of reinstating the 4B sales tax as well, to fund more infrastructure projects.
CM: And Sally when Robnett says the city has been keeping a balanced budget through partnerships, he’s talking about those public-private partnerships right?
SB: Right. To get specific, one of those projects is the partnership between the city and Pioneer Resources to fund that wastewater treatment plant in Midland this year.
CM: And as I understand it, our last candidate for City Council, former Councilman Michael Trost is pretty vehemently opposed to raising property taxes.
SB: He is. Trost served on the Council from 2008-2013, he says he’s running to restore some maturity and experience to the Council. He doesn’t like how tax dollars are being invested right now. And he recognizes that there are struggles in the budget, but he says there’s another approach to raising that money. Here’s Trost.
TROST: “Retaining our first responders — big issue with me. We’re losing them right and left, we’re already 28 policemen short. First responders in the fire department are leaving because they can go other places. Those issues have to be addressed, and it’s not by raising taxes. We cannot tax ourselves — property tax, that is, ourselves — into prosperity. That’s not how you do it. You look for other sources of income, you look where we can take money from here to put there.”
SB: Trost says raising the property tax just exacerbates an affordability problem in Midland. And it strikes him as the low-hanging fruit — the easiest way to the city to raise revenue. So he thinks there are many other creative ways to do this. And one example he gave was to make Midland’s landfill a regional landfill, so that the city could secure contracts with the surrounding communities who have dumps that may be strained from the influx of activity and people in the area.
SB: And for the record, Trost is in favor of reinstating the 4B sales tax — if what the money is used for is kept to roads and infrastructure.
CM: Sally, thanks for breaking down some of those issues for us.
SB: Thanks, Carlos.
CM: Early voting ends on Friday November 2nd, and election day is Tuesday November 6th.