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A Office of Public Affairs, U.T.-Austin DATELINE TEXAS / Freeport Gives Something Back BY ROBERT BRYCE Van Horn, Culberson County For twelve years Antonio Reyes worked as a welder and mechanic for the Road and Bridge Department in Culberson County. A quiet man with gray hair and sad eyes his job was one of the few in the city of Van Horn that paid more than minimum wage On October 1 Reyes 5t earning $925 an how; was fired Along They weren’t fired for poor job performance. For the past two years, Culberson County has struggled with a financial crisis that began when the county’s biggest taxpayer New Orleans-based Freeport-McMoRansued the county over its tax bill. Freeport owns a sulfur mine in northeast Culberson County, and sued the county over its 1995 and 1996 tax appraisals. After filing suit, the company paid taxes on the undisputed portion of the 1996 appraisala move that forced the county to borrow $300,000 in order to stay in operation. The dispute also left the Culberson County Hospital in Van Hornthe only hospital within a 120-mile radius of the townteetering on the brink of insolvency. And it left the road and bridge employees without the county paychecks they depend on to support their families. THE HANDLE AND THE BLADE In terms of per capita income, Culberson County ranks 245th out of 254 Texas counties. According to the state comptroller’s office, the average per capita income of county residents is $10,619 a year. About nine out of ten residents are Hispanic, and 85 percent of the students in the Culberson Independent School District qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Most of Freeport’s workers live in Pecos or in Carlsbad, New Mexico, so the payroll from the Freeport mine has little effect on Culberson County businesses. But the mine accounts for about one-third of the county’s taxable property. “They know those dollars mean a lot to us, and we can’t afford a long drawn-out fight. They know we will settle,” said Richard Lee, the administrator and CEO of the hospital. “They 18 THE TEXAS OBSERVER hold the handle and we hold the blade.” The hospital is vital to many residents of the Trans-Pecos because it has the only emergency room between El Paso and Fort Stockton that is capable of treating trauma patients. Freeport’s lawsuit and its refusal to pay its property taxes “may not force us to close,” said Lee, “but it’s going to push us damn close.” Kyle Brookshier, who grows pecans near Van Horn, chaired the appraisal re view board in 1995 when Freeport first objected to its tax bill. “It was a completely fair appraisal,” says Brookshier. “They couldn’t show us a legitimate reason to lower the valuation. It was obvious that their sole purpose was to stick it to us.” The tax dispute in Culberson County is similar to an ongoing dispute in Austin, where Freeport’s real estate subsidiary, FM Properties, is contesting its Travis County tax evaluation. In 1993, FM Properties sued OCTOBER 24, 1997