- Associated Press - Sunday, March 30, 2014

VON ORMY, Texas (AP) - As motorists speed past this tiny community along Interstate 35, they might not realize they have just passed the “Freest Little City in Texas,” as Mayor Art Martinez de Vara sometimes calls it.

The mayor shies away from political labels. But there is a libertarian tinge to a “zero tax, zero fee” goal as the best way to bring economic development to this poor but proud city that incorporated on the southwest side of San Antonio just six years ago.

“I don’t consider myself a politician,” he told the Austin American-Statesman (http://bit.ly/1dM1Ed7). “I just don’t like taxes and regulations.”

It’s an attitude that prompted community leaders to cut the town’s property tax rate in half while almost tripling its sales tax revenue with the help of fast-food restaurants and truck stops lured to Von Ormy’s Interstate 35 frontage. City officials hope to recruit larger enterprises once they have installed a sewer system and to eliminate the property tax altogether.

But the “Von Ormy Way,” as it is called, is also about offering basic municipal services efficiently - and sometimes in innovative ways - to a community not accustomed to being served.

“Here, you have a government experiment,” said Joe Phillips, a longtime Von Ormy property owner.

It’s gotten the attention of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Austin-based conservative think tank, which invited Martinez de Vara to speak at its annual conference last month.

“The primary lesson they’ve figured out is how to run their city more efficiently while creating a better business environment,” said Jess Fields, senior policy analyst at the foundation. “They encourage development by getting out of the way.”

The “Von Ormy Way” isn’t for everyone. Von Ormy, population 1,300, relies on a city marshal and two dozen volunteer police officers as well as volunteer firefighters. Its police station is a mobile command trailer the size of an 18-wheeler. It cost $4,500. One of its two police cars was donated.

Martinez de Vara said that residents - “after being ignored by San Antonio and Bexar County for years” - are patiently waiting for services as the city pursues a largely pay-as-you-go approach to creating a city from scratch.

As the city has prospered, it has installed streetlights and paved streets, and it is building a fire station. It has trash pickup, curbside recycling and negotiated free ambulance service.

The city’s only debt is a $120,000, seven-year note that, along with grants, helped buy land where the fire station, a school, a city hall and a park are planned.

The key to the city’s future is its pursuit of a public-private partnership to develop a $4 million sewer line that would serve new businesses at the intersection of I-35 and Loop 1604.

The revenue from that line, the mayor said, would finance extending sewers to the entire city.

This is a no-frills town.

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