MAC Building rental contracts light up city council; City of Marfa seeks new auditing firm

MARFA — Use of the Marfa Activities Center Building was a focal point for discussion at Thursday’s Marfa City Council meeting — a return to regular council business after weeks of budget workshops and negotiations. Discussion centered around a tale of two tenants: the Rio Grande Council of Governments and the Marfa and Presidio County Museum Thrift Store. 

In recent years, the City of Marfa has worked to convert old office space and city-owned buildings across town into rentals — an arrangement that has worked well for nonprofits struggling to afford expensive Marfa real estate. 

Last fall, the Marfa and Presidio County Museum Thrift Store faced hardship when their previous lease on San Antonio Street ended and was not available for renewal. The council voted unanimously to carve up a section of the MAC Building that had once housed the health department. The new space, leased at $425 a month, seemed like a way to help get the nonprofit back on their feet. “We fought very hard to have them as our tenants,” Mayor Manny Baeza said.

A few weeks later, the Rio Grande Council of Governments received funding for a rural regional coordinator to address the pandemic. RGCOG wanted office space for their new hire and for the locals who staff the organization part time. So the council decided to rent them space in the MAC Building too.

Fast forward a year to last week’s meeting, and multiple members of the council expressed frustration with managing professional landlord-tenant relationships in a town as small as Marfa. 

RGCOG, a government organization with headquarters in El Paso, paid promptly and managed their own electrical utility payments. But the thrift store –– a Marfa institution of 35 years –– had gone almost six months delinquent on rent in the midst of a contract dispute. 

Councilmember Buck Johnston put it succinctly: “It’s an awkward situation.”

“I think we need to be smarter in the future,” Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda said, citing the time City of Marfa staff had spent trying to collect the debt. “We need to be savvier as landlords, without being punitive.”

Councilmember Raul Lara agreed. “This is not personal. This is business.”

Council decided to increase both tenants’ rent by $50 and to impose a $50 per day fee after two calendar days of late rent. Utilities were bundled in the lease renewals.

The MAC Building is also the center of a year-old lawsuit that finally saw steps toward resolution at last week’s meeting. In the winter before the pandemic, Gregory Romeu of Devil’s Advocate Armory had booked the MAC Building for a gun show in May 2020. In March, council voted to shutter city buildings indefinitely. Romeu alleged he was not notified of the closures until five days before the event — at which point he says he spent considerable time, money and effort publicizing the event around the Big Bend.

In an executive session, the council authorized a settlement with Romeu. Members of the press and public are not permitted in executive session, so more details should emerge after Romeu responds to the settlement. 

In other business, the council moved to seek out a new auditing firm. The city currently holds a contract with Cherry Bakaert, headquartered in Richmond, Virginia. While the council fretted about finding a new firm amidst industry-wide turnover and stress due to the pandemic, Mayor Baeza held firm. “The audits have been coming in late,” he said.

In lean budget years, an audit can make all the difference between balanced books and heaping more debt on the city. 

Council discussion centered around trying to find a CPA closer to home. The city moved to submit an RFP — a “request for proposals,” which in the city’s case would require a sealed bid — with an open period of October 1 to December 3, 2021, advertised online and in the newspaper. 

Council also discussed, but did not take action on, a proposal to plant a series of trees near the corner of Dean and West Dallas Street near the Get Go Grocery Store. The plan will be revisited at a future meeting, when more information about ADA accessibility and logistics of the grocery store’s delivery schedule can be provided. 

At Councilmember Lara’s urging, the council also discussed the legality of golf carts on city streets. According to the state of Texas, carts are a feasible transportation option with a license plate and turn signals, but can only be driven on roads marked under 35 MPH. Because these laws are state directives, the council can’t take action on potential golf cart traffic — and many members were quick to point out that the sub-35 MPH law excludes the road to the Marfa Golf Course.

Marfa City Council will convene next on Tuesday, October 12.