Marfa leaders discusses emergency orders, EMS rates at city council meeting

MARFA — At a virtual city council meeting on Tuesday night, Marfa officials adopted the latest plan for reopening.

The ordinance, 2020-09, covers a variety of topics, from the Marfa Municipal Pool (which will remain closed) to the gradual reopening of city buildings and services.

One of the main issues for debate turned out to be rules governing trash collection rates at short-term rentals. As coronavirus hammered the hotel and short-term rental industry, city leaders allowed short-term rentals — which range from people who occasionally rent out rooms in their homes to commercial entities — to pay residential trash collection rates rather than commercial ones.

At the city council meeting, Marfa leaders disagreed on whether such rules should remain in place.

“In my opinion, we should stop it,” said Mayor Manny Baeza. He noted that the city was paying higher prices for garbage collection and had passed some of those costs on to commercial entities, of which he said short-term rentals were one.

Councilmember Raul Lara agreed. “I think we’ve been quite generous in our billing,” he said.

Both Buck Johnston and Yoseff Ben-Yehuda pushed back. “When I originally proposed this, it wasn’t my intention for it to be a timed thing,” Ben-Yehuda said of the revised rules. Instead, he noted that short-term rental owners are “one group of people that has been hit particularly hard.” He also said that some people only occasionally rent out rooms and are therefore “not a commercial entity,” and likely don’t have negative ramifications on the city’s housing stock the way a “full-fledged” one might.

Ultimately, the city decided to continue the short-term rental rate abatements through July 10, at which point — unless the city changes its mind — short-term rentals will revert to commercial rates. At that point, according to the revised rules, short-term rental owners can apply for a waiver to keep their residential rates in place.

It remains to be seen what exactly the rules for those waivers will be, though some city leaders proposed using Host Compliance to determine which short-term rentals are actual businesses versus more casual arrangements. They also want to use the company to track down unregistered short-term rentals. City leaders pegged the number of those at around 30.

On the other hand, the city decided to maintain waivers for late fees and penalties related to city utilities. “We can show more leniency,” Mayor Baeza said, noting that many people have continued to pay bills.

The city also briefly considered whether to further downgrade its color-coded phased reopening from orange to yellow. The system, which works like Homeland Security color-coding system for terrorist threats, will see a further downgrading of precautions once it reaches yellow — including allowing some visitors inside the library and Marfa Visitor Center.

Ultimately, though, the city decided to remain at its “orange” precaution level, which will keep buildings closed.

“We do have some staff that are absolutely scared to open,” said Mandy Roane, the city’s director of community services. “A lot of my staff are in high-risk categories.”

Separately, the city also decided to increase its EMS rates after Bert Lagarde, the city’s EMS director, gave a presentation showing that Marfa’s EMS rates lagged behind other regional cities. Lagarde said these rates were “letting insurance companies off easy,” while City Attorney Teresa Todd said the city was subsidizing medical fees that the federal government might otherwise pay for.

The changes will see an across-the-board increase for EMS services, with one exception: residents will get one free “treatment without transport” per month. Previously, the city had not charged at all for EMS workers to treat a resident without a transport to the hospital.