Editor’s note: In a year dominated by COVID-19 hysteria, businesses, schools, and individuals were controlled by mandates ostensibly designed to stop the virus. Following are the top headlines in the Alpine Avalanche from 2020.
Legendary oilman and philanthropist dies
Well-known oilman, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Clayton Williams died Feb. 14 at his home in Midland. He was 88. He reportedly died from complications of pneumonia.
Perhaps most notorious for his ill-fated bid for governor of Texas, the Republican lost to Democrat Ann Richards in 1990.
Though born in Alpine, Williams grew up in Fort Stockton, and started his career there by brokering oil and gas leases before he started drilling oil wells. He hit enough strikes to become one of the state’s largest independent oilmen by 1982.
Big Bend hunkering down in face of virus
Amid the nationwide coronavirus panic, on March 13 President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, and Texas Governor Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster.
Both actions empowered the leaders to perform actions or impose policies they would not normally be permitted to mandate.
On March 18, Brewster County Judge Eleazar Cano declared a local state of disaster that prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people in the county, among other requirements. No cases of COVID-19 had yet been reported in the county.
Classes at all Alpine ISD campuses were suspended until March 23. All AISD facilities were closed as well.
Hotel owner sues commissioners and county
Brewster County commissioners last week shut down all hotels, motels, and short-term rentals in the county, and Gage Hotel owner J.P. Bryan responded with a lawsuit.
In an effort to rid the county of tourists and outsiders who might carry the coronavirus with them as they escaped urban areas, the commissioners ordered everyone out by noon on March 23.
In defending his first-class Marathon establishment, Bryan names as defendants County Judge Eleazar Cano, and Commissioners Betse Esparza, Sara Allen Collando, and Mike Pallanez.
Cited as factual background was Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s March 13 proclamation declaring a state of disaster for all counties, and it did not require or recommend Texas counties to close short-term rentals.
Cano shuts down county
On March 31, Brewster County Judge Eleazar Cano ordered all individuals living in the county to stay at home in their place of residence, prohibited all public or private gatherings of any size, shut down all but essential businesses, and banned all travel except for essential activities.
In addition, he imposed a countywide curfew that ordered the public to remain at their residences between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
As of press time, no cases of the coronavirus had yet been identified in the Tri-County.
Also on Tuesday, Governor Greg Abbott told Texans to stay at home except for essential services and activities.
Abbott loosens some restrictions, promises more
At an April 17 press conference, Gov. Greg Abbott said reopening the Texas economy during the coronavirus outbreak would come in phases. The initial steps included loosening surgery restrictions at medical facilities, allowing all retail stores to provide product pickups, and reopening state parks.
Abbott pointed out that economic damage had hit even more Americans than the coronavirus itself, with more than 22 million filing for unemployment since restrictions started, and more than a million in Texas.
Abbott outlines Phase 1, ends stay-at-home directive
At an April 27 press conference, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said his stay-at-home order would expire April 30, and introduced Phase 1 for reopening the Texas economy.
First to open were restaurants, retail businesses, movie theaters, and malls, limited to 25% capacity. Abbott added that counties with five or fewer COVID-19 cases could increase their capacity to 50% after submitting a form to the state for approval.
Hair and nail salons, barber shops, gyms, and bars must remain closed until at least mid-May.
He stressed that his order “supersedes all local orders.”
About the controversial face mask issue, Abbott strongly recommended that people wear masks, but said “it’s not a mandate, and we made clear that no jurisdiction can impose a penalty for not wearing one.”
Abbott concluded by saying if anyone didn’t feel safe venturing out, there was no requirement that those people leave their homes.
Trustees discuss budget overrun
Alpine ISD Board of Trustees held a special meeting on May 14 to discuss the new high school construction budget with Parkhill, Smith, and Cooper architect Allan Wolf, along with Lee Lewis Construction Project Director Neil Easter.
The main topic was the unforeseen announcement from Wolf and Easter that bids received from subcontractors were over budget by several million dollars.
The design exceeded the original bond scope by 10,000 square feet, going to 76,000 square feet instead of 66,000 square feet, which necessitated exceeding the original bond amount by $1.5-2 million.
In November 2018, voters approved a $22.588 million bond for the new high school construction.
Protest march coming to Alpine
The City of Alpine held its regularly scheduled council meeting on June 2, and City Manager Erik Zimmer announced that Big Bend Black Lives Matter would hold a protest march on June 6 in Alpine. The group marched from City Hall to the Brewster County Courthouse, and held a rally there.
Zimmer said the potential for civil unrest was of concern, particularly since some of the group was from outside the area.
Mayor Andy Ramos noted that although everyone was entitled to hold public gatherings, those gatherings must be done in a safe manner. He said he would not tolerate any kind of civil disobedience in Alpine. The march was peaceful.
Trustees vote to terminate contractor
Alpine ISD Board of Trustees held its regular meeting on June 30, and announced termination of Lubbock contractor Lee Lewis Construction for construction of the new high school.
Trustees delegated authority to Alpine ISD Superintendent Becky McCutchen and CFO Tucker Durham to prepare and issue procurement documents, receive and open bids, and propose a ranking for the board’s consideration.
Trustees also approved the final change order for close out of the bus barn project. McCutchen announced that based on input from legal counsel, there was $31,000 in liquidated damages to which Alpine ISD was entitled from Lee Lewis Construction for the bus barn delay.
Abbott issues statewide mask mandate
On July 2, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide mask mandate ordering Texans living in counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases to wear a face covering while inside a business or other building open to the public, as well as outdoor public spaces when social distancing isn’t possible.
The order provided several exceptions, including children younger than 10 years old, those with a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, people who are eating or drinking, and those exercising outdoors.
Abbott also banned outdoor gatherings of over 10 people unless local officials approve.
The order specified that no one could get jail time for a violation.
AISD discusses budget and deficit issues
Alpine ISD Board of Trustees held its regular meeting on June 30, and the meeting began with a public hearing for review of proposed budgets by CFO Tucker Durham. He discussed the district’s $600,000 deficit, stating there were several factors to account for the large shortage. Durham noted the board-approved purchase of band uniforms at a cost of $100,000 that were not processed in a timely manner due to coronavirus closures. The purchase thus had to be factored into the upcoming fiscal year’s budget.
Further, due to coronavirus concerns, Durham also budgeted monies for a disinfecting contract that would cost $32,000-33,000, and the provider would be spraying all district facilities three times a year.
Construction schedule moves forward
Alpine ISD Board of Trustees held its regularly scheduled meeting on Aug. 5, and Superintendent Becky McCutchen provided a construction update.
She said bids were due Aug. 20.
On Aug. 24, a construction ranking team will meet to evaluate the bids. The team consists of McCutchen, district CFO Tucker Durham, maintenance staff member Chayo Gonzales, construction specialist Paul Kucera, and Alpine general contractor Sammy Saenz. Joining them will be a team of architects from Parkhill, Smith & Cooper.
Phase 1 will include the new high school and renovations, along with the elementary and middle school gym HVAC systems, and is slated to get underway on Sept. 9, with estimated completion in February 2021. Substantial completion would be finalized in December 2021.
Drought changes livestock management practices
Severe drought this year has affected ranchers throughout the Tri-County. Brewster County has been hit especially hard, and help is here for those who need it.
The USDA Farm Service Agency last week announced that Brewster County ranchers and livestock producers could apply for assistance for grazing losses suffered in 2020.
Although not all may require federal assistance, drought has forced some ranchers in Brewster and neighboring counties to change the way they manage their livestock, including Gates Ranch in Marfa.
Tyler Gates noted their cows didn’t have green grass to support their calves any longer, so they were weaned earlier than normal.
Dodson trumps Drawe for sheriff
Brewster County voters flocked to the polls on Nov. 3, turning out in what may be record numbers, and Texas remained red as Republicans dominated the state’s 2020 election.
Of 7,556 registered voters in the county, 4,833 cast ballots, for a 63.96% percent turnout, with results largely favoring the Republican candidates.
Closest to home, Independent write-in candidate Will Drawe challenged Democratic incumbent Ronny Dodson for the sheriff position. With 85.77% of the vote, Dodson handily bested Drawe, who took 14.22%.
As of press time, in the bitterly contested race for U.S. president, incumbent Republican Donald Trump won Brewster County and Texas, taking 52.13% in the county and 52.31% statewide. Challenger Democrat Joe Biden garnered 47.87% in the county, and 46.27% statewide.
Fightin’ Bucks take Bi-District Championship
Playoff football is underway, and the Fightin' Bucks took on the Sonora Broncos on Nov. 12 in the Bi-District Championship. The game took place at Badger Stadium in McCamey. Because of a COVID-19 quarantine, neither the band nor the cheerleaders were there to support the team, so the crowd took over and played an interactive role.
The final score was 30-22, Bucks. They went on to play the Idalou Wildcats on Nov. 19 in the UIL Area playoffs, but lost that effort.
McCutchen cites attendance concerns
Alpine ISD Board of Trustees held its regularly scheduled meeting on Dec. 16, and Superintendent Becky McCutchen addressed lower student attendance across the district, which stood at 940 as of Dec. 11. School districts receive funding based on average daily attendance calculations.
McCutchen said average daily attendance was down to 875 students due to COVID-19, and that was hurting the district financially.
“Our ADA is hurting financially, and causing a bit of a problem with our funding coming in,” said McCutchen. “TEA needs data, and so much of our accountability is based on growth.”