Brewster County continues to grapple with short-term rental tracking

BREWSTER COUNTY — At last week’s Brewster County Commissioners Court meeting, commissioners discussed the county’s ongoing quest to wrangle the vast region’s growing number of short-term rental properties — an effort they hope will result in a thorough database of registered properties outside of Alpine city limits.

Back in January, officials contracted Austin-based GovOS to build a digital database of short-term rentals in the vast unincorporated reaches of the county — the hope being that such a database would help facilitate the collection of hotel occupancy taxes, or HOT funds. The county had been running up against the problem of delinquent property owners who were flying below the radar.

At the time, County Treasurer Julie Morton estimated that it may take 3-4 months to get the system up and running. Eight months later, the database has yet to be finalized — it turns out that taking inventory of rentals tucked away in the farther reaches of the county has proved challenging, said Robert Alvarez, Brewster County Tourism Council executive director. 

“It’s been going at a snail’s pace — not even a turtle, even slower than that. We had hoped it would go much much quicker,” said Alvarez in an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel. “But there’s a whole bunch of short-term rentals that are unaccounted for down in South County … finding them has been difficult, to say the least, for the company.”

But the company has now produced a preliminary list. GovOS has tracked the rentals by “advertisements” –– essentially, digital traces of existing short-term rentals including banner ads, online listings and reviews. Having compiled a register of properties believed to be STRs residing in Brewster County but outside Alpine city limits, it now falls to the county to verify properties on the list meet those criteria. 

“They’ve scoured the internet,” said Alvarez. “Now it’s in our court.” 

Based on the gathered data, Alvarez estimated that the county will be keeping tabs on approximately 300 short-term rentals — though an exact number will not be known until the vetting process is complete. 

But commissioners also have yet to decide exactly what they will do with that data or what their role will entail. At last week’s court, it was generally agreed that the county should have a database of the properties for safety reasons — information such as the owner’s name, manager’s name, and 911 address should be available, said County Judge Greg Henington, noting the STR boom and lack of organization has already raised issues for the county.

“They’ve grown so fast, we don’t have a handle on where they are,” he said. “We’ve run into problems with 911, and septic tank compliance.”

Crucially, said Henington, the county will not have the authority to impose regulations on local STRs — “this is registration, not regulation,” he said. The question of whether to impose a registration fee of $50 was floated, but no action was taken.

The county has also realized through its work with GovOS that –– despite the widely touted tourism boom –– the county still isn’t on a level playing field with bigger Texas tourism destinations like Austin or San Antonio. “GovOS is a nice company and the software is absolutely beautiful,” Alvarez said. “It’s just more than we need.” 

But that doesn’t mean it won’t eventually be needed — Brewster County knows its tourism economy is growing, and will continue to grow.

When Alvarez first came on board as director of tourism in 2016, they were bringing in between $800,000 and $900,000 per year in HOT fees, he said — last year, they saw $1.8 million. (And while it’s hard to put a number on absent payments, his very rough estimate of potentially outstanding HOT fees hovers around $250,000.)

The tourism industry has changed so much over the past few years that it’s difficult for growing markets like Brewster County to accurately gauge where they’re at. Tourism was already on the rise before the pandemic, but 2021 saw unprecedented numbers of visitors at Big Bend National Park as Americans sought adventure in the great outdoors. 

It’s difficult to project how those trends will play out in the long run. In record-smashing 2021, the net benefit to the local economy –– defined as money spent within the park and “gateway” communities in Presidio, Brewster, Pecos and Terrell counties –– was estimated at $61 million dollars. 

Those figures dipped about 10% this year to $56 million. Despite the inflated pandemic numbers, economic benefits are still estimated by the National Park Service to be up from 2019, when Big Bend generated about $47 million for the regional economy.

Alvarez was confident that the tourism economy would one day be able to fill the shoes of more advanced markets. “Five years down the road, I bet [this system] will be perfect for us,” he said.