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Texas News

This West Texas town has a lot of money in the bank. Why can’t it pick up its trash?

KERMIT — The room was packed and the air buzzed with excitement. Rodney Hayes, a Kermit City Council member, served blended frozen strawberry margaritas — his specialty. Two tables nearby had the fixings — a charcuterie board and desserts.

It was an odd scene for a City Council meeting. But this was no regular meeting. The six-member board had gathered at this West Texas town’s sleek new civic center to christen it after years of delaying the project due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rarely had there been that much excitement over the city’s proceedings, said Judy Williams, another City Council member. Perhaps even more rare was that the town of Kermit had anything new to celebrate.

The dozens of Kermit residents in the room relished for hours that evening. It was a respite from the reality that awaited them outside the doors.

Kermit is crumbling.

The nearly 6,000 residents of this town surrounded by sand mines share their neighborhoods, restaurants and roads with the energy industry. Truckers stampede through the city’s roadways day and night in flatbeds and tank trucks.

Semi-truck trailers are seen backed in at a rest stop Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, in Kermit. Kermit sees a high enough amount of oilfield traffic that members of the local volunteer fire department estimate that nearly seven out of every ten vehicular collisions involve an 18-wheeler.
Semitrailers are seen parked at a rest stop in Kermit on Nov. 8. The city sees so much 18-wheeler traffic that the local volunteer fire department estimates nearly seven out of every 10 vehicular collisions involve a semitrailer. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

Kermit is petroleum country, smack dab at the middle of the Permian Basin, a 75,000 square mile stretch of oil fields that covers New Mexico and West Texas. Cities here accommodate the needs of the oil fields. An hour away, workers crowd the streets of Midland and Odessa, where new businesses are opening and homes are being built.

That prosperity has not reached Kermit, said Mayor David Holbrook, a barbecue restaurant owner elected in 2021.

Kermit’s self-esteem has gradually deteriorated. The wear and tear on the roads mirrors the city’s spirit, Holbrook said. His task — along with his peers on the City Council — is to convince residents and other local officials that their hometown is worth the investment.

“I don’t know how you restore that community pride,” Holbrook said.

Mayor of Kermit David Holbrook poses for a photo Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, in Kermit.
Kermit Mayor David Holbrook on Nov. 8. “Our home was not getting taken care of and we had a huge savings account,” Holbrook said about Kermit’s history of neglecting itself. “We had 12 million dollars in reserves wasting away in a bank account.” Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

It’s a familiar mindset among elected leaders and voters in the Permian, where city coffers boom and bust like the oil sector. Midland and Odessa have only recently begun to finance significant projects — with the help of energy companies and local foundations — such as a multipurpose sports complex. And for the first time in a decade, voters this fall in both cities approved new debt for schools.

It’s not that Kermit is financially strapped. Rather, local officials had been tight with the city’s purse for years, nervous to shell out money for anything other than the bare necessities. Department heads were told to come up with “wish lists” instead of submitting budget proposals, and to hope for the best. Economic development projects gathered dust in the cabinets of City Hall. The last time the City Council approved a new residential development — and it was completed — was 30 years ago.

The penny-pinching was so fierce that the city saved enough money to carry them a year without needing to collect a dime of property and sales taxes — six times greater than what the Government Finance Officers Association, a nationwide group of 20,000 members, recommends.

“We had millions of dollars in reserves for a rainy day,” Holbrook said. “And it was raining.”

A lone tree grows in an undeveloped lot neighboring a residential neighborhood Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, in Kermit. The Whitetail Development Group proposed a residential expansion to the City of Kermit, asking officials to allot TKTK for construction, but left the land nearly untouched after building a single multi-family housing unit.
A lone tree grows in an undeveloped lot next to a residential neighborhood Nov. 8 in Kermit. In 2019, the Kermit City Council was approached by Whitetail Development Group with a proposed residential development project. Four years and a $500,000 dollar investment later, the city is suing the development group for the return of unused funds. The lot has been left untouched since. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

Kermit was swimming in cash and paid a higher price for it, said Mica Lunt, a consultant who was appointed interim city manager this summer to help organize the city’s books.

“Previous leadership had adopted an anti-spending culture so pervasive that departments did not have the necessary equipment to function,” Lunt said.

The town’s problems are not just buried in a bureaucratic budget; they appear in everyday life for residents. One issue in particular smells.

Kayla Garcia lives with her husband and 1-year-old daughter in a two-bedroom house in a neighborhood two blocks off the town’s main road. The dumpster nearest to her mom’s house had been full for days while the garbage inside piled up. To get rid of their trash, she said, the two collected the excess and drove around until they found an empty dumpster.

“You’re not supposed to, but we had no choice,” Garcia said.

It’s an issue that has spread to every neighborhood at a pace faster than Kermit officials have been able to keep up with. Debris and abandoned vehicle fragments clutter open spaces. There are not enough garbage disposal trucks to clean up the messes.

The problem became so dire the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality issued a violation because the city did not own adequate garbage trucks. It forced Kermit officials to shell out almost $840,000 on a private contractor to clear out the garbage.

Meanwhile, the constant bustle of trucks driving in and out of Kermit has decimated the roads and parts of the infrastructure.

Texas Department of Public Safety contractors pave the intersection of Austin Street and Pine Street Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023 in Kermit. The intersection, according to the mayor of Kermit, David Holbrook, is one of the busiest in town with a large majority of the traffic consisting of 18-wheelers hauling sand for the oilfields.
Texas Department of Public Safety contractors pave the intersection of Austin and Pine streets in Kermit on Nov. 8. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

Potholes line the streets. In one particularly busy intersection, the traffic lights don’t work because of the number of times truckers have crashed into the power grid, rendering it inoperable. The city has stopped fixing it altogether while the four-way lights blink endlessly.

Garcia said she has to replace her tires at least two times a year because of the roads’ condition. She knows the city is trying to fix the roads and clean up the trash, but recognizes the large scale of the problem.

Garcia also acknowledges that the truckers are part of Kermit’s fabric. She sees them in restaurants and supermarkets and even strikes up a conversation with them every once in a while.

“They’re just in and out. You meet a lot of them, and they’re either in a rush or sleeping. They don’t really bother anyone,” she said.

Holbrook wants to enforce the rules and get the frenzy under control, he said, and has even cajoled the council into establishing more stringent ordinances to deter the carelessness on the road.

Rows of trucks clog the side streets, and their owners are nowhere in sight. But the trucks outnumber city employees, and in the last three years, Kermit has hemorrhaged workers.

“It’s super hard to keep up with the energy industry. [City leaders] have to recognize the industry as a competition,” Lunt said. “Employees are in excessively high demand.”

Oilfield traffic travels east along State Highway 302 out of Kermit, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023 in Winkler County.
Oilfield traffic travels east along State Highway 302 out of Kermit, in Winkler County, on Nov. 8. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

The city devised ways to make public work more attractive. It used part of its reserves to increase wages in every department. The city shortened the workweek to four days a week. It is still too early to tell, Lunt said, but the reality is that wages alone would not suffice.

Residents keep their heads up.

Billie Sharp, 79, has lived in Kermit for 61 years. She lives in the house she purchased for $8,000 when she first moved to town. It was a steal, she said. Back then, Kermit was precisely where she wanted to raise her children.

They rode bicycles all over town. She was on a first-name basis with her neighbors.

But the city has changed drastically. She hears the trucks roaring in and out and the trash piling up. She doesn’t know the City Council well enough to know if it can restore Kermit’s pride.

“I think they’re trying,” she said. “But the problem just got too big.”

Still, she wouldn’t trade her home for the world, although she’s thought about it.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/01/04/kermit-texas/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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