Council action could gut Odessa Chamber

Taxes, fees going up in City of Odessa following Tuesday vote

The Odessa City Council opted not to offer a year-long contract to the Odessa Chamber of Commerce’s economic development division Tuesday night, placing the future of the division in question after Dec. 31.

The council was scheduled to discuss approving the contracts of six organizations that have contracts with the Odessa Development Corporation, including the Odessa Black Chamber of Commerce, Current Media Partners, UTPB’s Small Business Development Administration, Midland-Odessa Transportation Alliance, the City of Odessa’s financial department and the chamber’s economic development division.

The council approved five of the contracts without discussion, but engaged in a long discussion about the chamber’s contract after Councilmember Steve Thompson asked to discuss it separately.

Thompson said he couldn’t understand why five out of the seven ODC board members were in favor of offering the chamber either a month-to-month or quarter-to-quarter contract.

It takes time to recruit new businesses to an area, Thompson said.

“What’s the chamber done or not done to warrant this kind of scrutiny?” Thompson asked.

Within the last year the ODC board went out for bid for new auditors and new attorneys and Thompson speculated board members may be trying to separate itself from the city to become its own entity. He also questioned where the organization would find another recruiting firm.

ODC Vice President Jeff Russell reassured Thompson that there’s never been any discussions about separating from the city and, in fact, he doesn’t believe its statutorily possible.

The ODC is looking for ways to “become better and more effective” and the board did not want to get tied into a contract should they discover other ways to accomplish its goals, Russell said.

They are currently in the process of studying nearly 60 other development corporations throughout the state, he said, but offered few details regarding who is doing that and how.

The ODC takes in $11-$14 million in sales tax revenue and there is currently $50 million of unallocated funds sitting in the bank, Russell said.

“When we look at our fund balance continuing to grow month-by-month, it kind of makes me scratch my head a bit saying, OK, are we being as effective as we can because our goal to the taxpayers is not to grow our fund balance,” Russell said. “Our goal is to put that money to work to further develop our community to attract new businesses, to keep it going so we can keep that sales tax revenue growing which is good for everybody.”

The ODC currently doesn’t have any ruler to measure just how well it’s doing and the board members want to see how other development corporations operate, Russell said.

Thompson, however, said a representative with the Texas Economic Development Corporation recently said the ODC is doing better than most economic development corporations and congratulated board members on how well they are doing in recruiting businesses and spending the sales tax revenues.

Russell said he didn’t recall him saying so.

Thompson and Russell then began to argue about whether ODC money can be used to improve Odessa roads, with Thompson saying they can be and Russell disagreeing.

Mayor Javier Joven got the two back on track after chastising City Attorney Dan Jones for not doing so.

In the end, five council members voted to review the chamber’s contract every quarter. Thompson voted against the measure and Councilmember Gilbert Vasquez abstained as his daughter works for the chamber.

Later in the meeting Renee Earls, president and chief executive officer for the chamber, spoke.

She told the council the chamber has always had “clean” audits and has met every one of its contractual obligations.

“We feel like there’s no organization in this community who waves the Odessa flag better than we do,” Earls said.

The chamber’s staff has been meeting regularly with ODC members and it wasn’t until a month or two ago that any issues were brought up, she said.

“I think we all want to be better. We just want the opportunity to be able to correct anything that’s been done or answer any questions and not get hit with it when we read an agenda at five o’clock on a Friday and not given any respect to us as far as if there is a concern,” Earls said.

Everyone within the chamber loves Odessa, she said.

“We have four members who are in the economic development department, that’s exclusively what they do and it’s very disheartening to think come the end of December, they’re basically out of a job,” Earls said.

Noting Earls didn’t speak until after the council voted on the matter, Councilmember Greg Connell asked Jones if they needed to vote on the matter again. He said no.

In other matters, the council voted for a tax rate of $0.483791 per $100 valuation. While the rate is the same as last year it is a tax increase on Odessans as it brings in more money than last year. The council could have voted to lower the rate and bring in the same amount of property tax revenue as last year.

According to Interim Director of Finance Seth Boles, the increase will bring in roughly $2.5 million or 5% more than last year and of that amount $1.9 million will come from new property added to the tax roll this year.

The final vote on the proposed tax rate will be held Sept. 26.

The council also approved a 6% increase in the water and sewer rates and a 3.5% increase in solid waste rates.

In addition, the council approved the ‘23-‘24 budget. The budget shows total current revenues of $269,555,712 and total financing sources of $516,862,613. Total expenditures are expected to be $276,732,308.

The council also voted 6-1 to pass a resolution stating the City of Odessa will not enforce any mandates imposed by the federal government or the State of Texas.

Vasquez abstained from voting on the resolution, which was presented by Councilmember Chris Hanie.

Hanie believes the state and the city were “subjected to injustices in the form of overreaching government-imposed mandates” during the pandemic. He further stated “unquantifiable” damage was done to citizens “mentally, emotionally and financially” because of the mask mandate and compulsory lockdowns.

Hanie contends the government overreached and violated citizens’ right to control their own body and a resolution needed to be passed so it doesn’t happen again.

State Representative Brian Harrison, who served as the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Trump, attended Tuesday’s meeting.

Harrison, who stands behind the Texas COVID Vaccine Freedom Act, said the council is getting national attention for its stance.

“Their eyes are turned to Odessa, Texas, tonight and to see the brave, bold, courageous and I would say, historic, action that you’re taking,” Harrison said. “I couldn’t be more proud to be here with you. I couldn’t be more excited for what you’re doing for your citizens. Every resident of Odessa should be proud of you here tonight and I’m just thrilled and honored to be a small part of it.”