City Council reviews new short-term rental regulations, fire station expansion project, secures new city attorney

MARFA — City Council met on Election Night this Tuesday for their one and only meeting in November to discuss updates from city staff regarding new, more stringent short term rental (STR) regulations, to greenlight the Marfa Volunteer Fire Department’s station expansion project, and to secure a new city attorney in the wake of Teresa Todd’s resignation last month. 

New tables for City Hall’s Casner Room were debuted at the meeting, with council members and city staff now facing the public — old tables provided a clunky set up and were unable to be moved. Mayor Manny Baeza, Mayor Pro Tem Irma Salgado, City Manager Mandy Roane, and all council members were present. 

Short-term rentals face hiked fees, while discussion of potential caps is postponed

Roane and City Secretary Kelly Perez shared a number of updates relating to the city’s newly-adopted STR regulations. During the 2022-23 budgeting process, council members voted to increase STR registration fees to a flat fee of $500 with each unit costing an additional $100, up from the $150 fee which had been in place since 2018. City staff pledged to collect fees on a stricter schedule, as opposed to on a rolling basis. Roane said city staff was working on developing an Excel spreadsheet of STRs in Marfa with updated contact, meter and payment information to work from. 

Council also directed city staff to look into implementing mandatory fire and safety inspections for STRs. Roane said so far they were unsuccessful in finding a qualified fire inspector to perform safety checks — state fire marshals declined to step into the role — and were lacking a substantial budget, meaning the city would need to handle the matter in-house. 

It was decided City Secretary Perez would take on the majority of the new code enforcement duties, scheduling and performing inspections with STR operators to ensure carbon monoxide, fire detectors and more were present in the dwellings. Roane said their outside attorney was concerned the new STR fees might seem punitive, and the city needed to prove the increased fees were resulting in more robust city services. The proposed solution is to pay the majority of Perez’s salary with code enforcement funds and find someone else to help with City Hall receptionist duties. 

Roane said the current timeline proposes city staff send out letters to its list of STR operators in January to find out if their listings are still active, send out registration forms and invoices in February, and start working on inspections — ensuring STRs have separate meter connections per each unit and more — in May and June. 

Roane said city staff were also considering partnering with a company called AirDNA which would help the city collect more data, including occupancy rates, for STRs. “The more data we have the better,” she said. The city will explore the option of partnering with the City of Alpine to hire the company and could use Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) revenue to pay for the resource, said Roane. 

Efforts to make STRs more easily identifiable for inspections, via a window sticker, were also being discussed, she said, as was the idea to have a list of registered STRs on the Visit Marfa website. Roane said the city would also like to provide more resources for STR operators, in the form of a folder with helpful information such as emergency after hours contacts for city services, 911 addresses, and more. 

While Councilmember Jason Ballmann has urged discussion of a potential STR moratorium, or at least more zoning assessments to curb the influx of such rentals, he was met with resistance. Roane requested that for the time being council pause exploration of potential caps on STRs or other zoning changes so that city staff has time to get current changes in place. “This is going to be a huge undertaking,” said Roane. “We’re asking council not to do anything else at this time, no more changes. [It will be] easily six, probably nine months, before we know how things are going.”

“I understand the stress on the staff,” Councilmember Ballmann acknowledged, while still advocating more aggressive measures. “The reason this all came up in the first place was that there’s an overabundance of short-term rentals in the city.” 

Roane said the city’s contracted attorney was looking into the possibilities, but reaffirmed the level of work required to enforce the initial changes. Revisions to the city’s STR ordinance regarding the updates are ongoing with their legal counsel. 

El Paso lawyer secured as new city attorney

Next, council discussed securing a new city attorney. Roane outlined the three main options moving forward: hire a local city attorney, have their outside council become their city attorney, or do a hybrid model. Roane recommended the city hire their outside attorney, Sylvia Firth with Bojorquez Law Firm out of El Paso, to become their city attorney. 

She said city staff were already working with Firth on a number of matters and found the arrangement suited them. The cost would not exceed the city’s budget, said Roane, coming in at just under $4,000 a month, slightly less than what it was costing the city to have a full-time local city attorney. She said because Bojorquez Law Firm specializes in municipal law they were a good fit, and suggested Firth travel to Marfa to attend city council meetings quarterly. 

Council members found the solution agreeable, but a few said they’d like to see the opportunity opened up in the next budget cycle to hire a local attorney. 

Fire department expansion project moves forward

Lastly, council heard from Roane and Fire Chief Garey Mitshcke about the MVFD’s long-awaited expansion project. The station’s upgrades, which have been stalled for years for a lack of funding, are centered around more weatherized storage for valuable trucks and equipment, as well as a new ADA-accessible bathroom with a shower, laundry room and kitchen for its interior space, which may act as a designated emergency shelter for the county. 

The cheapest bid the city received for the project this past July was for $447,733.78 from New Construction out of Alpine, who was represented at the meeting. They said they were still available to take on the work and said prices have increased, but not by much. Roane and Mitshcke agreed to cut costs when needed. 

Funds for phase 1, the exterior construction and weatherization, have been secured, as have a portion of funds for phase 2, the interior work. The total cost will be over $375,000 for phase 1, with the city chipping in $147,000, the county $224,000 worth of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, and the fire department paying the remainder. Mitshcke said he is optimistic about the outcome and excited to see the project finally come to fruition. 

“Phase one is the lion’s share of it — it’s going to get us the enclosed building and the climate control space for the trucks, so that’s the most important part of it,” said Mitshcke.