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Boom in short-term rentals, infrastructure among issues discussed at Brewster County candidates forum

Candidates running for county judge and south county commissioner in this year’s midterm elections gathered in Alpine for a Q&A with audience members on the issues facing the Big Bend region.

By Travis Bubenik

The explosion of short-term rentals in the Big Bend region, taxes and infrastructure were among the issues discussed at a public forum in Alpine last month where candidates for local office took questions from the audience and pitched their vision for the future of Brewster County.

The forum on Oct. 17, organized jointly by the local Democratic and Republican Parties, included the two candidates running for Brewster County Judge and the two running for the Precinct 2 county commissioner’s seat, which represents the Terlingua area.

Republican Greg Henington and Democrat Oscar Cobos are vying to be the next county judge after incumbent Eleazar Cano, a Democrat, announced last year he would not seek reelection. Henington is a Terlingua businessman, while Cobos is a local community organizer and activist.

Incumbent county commissioner Sara Allen Colando, a Democrat, is running for reelection against Republican Mark Chiles.

Below are highlights from the recent candidate forum in Alpine.

Early voting in the 2022 midterm elections runs through Friday, Nov. 4. Election Day is on Nov. 8. Click here for a guide to voting in West Texas.

Improving health care access and emergency services in Far West Texas

Access to health care has been a topic of much discussion in the Big Bend region over the past couple years, particularly given the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because of the region’s struggles with EMS services and even essential hospital functions like labor and delivery services.

At the Alpine forum, both Cobos and Henington said they would welcome an expansion of the federal Medicaid program in Texas, saying it could have benefits for rural areas like Brewster County. Texas Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott, have largely opposed Medicaid expansion.

Henington, who sits on the Big Bend Regional Hospital District board, praised that organization’s work providing health care services to locals who can’t afford it, and said the district is working to expand some of its services in Terlingua and Presidio thanks to new federal grant funding.

Both candidates discussed the prospect of starting a regional, multi-county EMS service. 

“It’s so important that we start working together in the tri-county area,” Cobos said, saying he would support creating a form of a taxing entity called an Emergency Services District to fund a regional EMS service. “We cannot afford to step back and say we have to put people behind profit.”

Henington, who also leads Terlingua Fire and EMS, said there are “some pros and cons” to the idea of a regional EMS service, but said there “could be some real benefits.”

Still, he noted that the Big Bend area has historically had a hard time recruiting EMS workers.

“I’ve watched us go from putting our gear outside to having a nice facility built by the county, but we continue to struggle with personnel,” he said.

Colando said she’s interested in the idea as well.

“In general, I think pooling our resources is a good idea,” she said. “I would really love to see a plan on paper. I haven’t seen that yet, so I can’t really criticize or celebrate what that plan would be, but I think that’s a great conversation to have.”

Chiles also said he could see benefits in a regional EMS solution.

“It just seems to me like working together, cooperatively is certainly an answer that everybody should be able to, across party lines, work together,” he said.

Managing the impacts of Brewster County’s growing population and booming tourism industry

When the COVID-19 pandemic first began in early 2020, tourism to the Big Bend region came to a screeching halt.

For a little while, anyways. And then it came roaring back.

Over the past two years, the number of people flocking to Big Bend National Park has grown to record highs, prompting more and more property owners to set up Airbnb’s and other short-term rentals. While the boom has been good for local businesses, it’s also led to concerns about housing availability and some rental owners skirting local taxes.

At the Alpine forum, the candidates all shied away from the notion of county officials more aggressively enforcing building ordinances. Moderator Martin Benevich raised the question of whether the county should hire a building code enforcement officer, an idea the candidates all said they would either not support or was not realistic for such a sprawling county.

Colando said she would support new building permits in the county “so we know where these structures are being built.”

Chiles said the county government shouldn’t do anything to discourage people from moving to the area.

“Stuff is really rough out there, some of the things being built,” he said. “To tell those people you can’t come to Brewster County because you can’t build a $75-80,000 home, I don’t find the fairness in that.”

Henington said while he’s “not a big fan of more government regulation,” he would like to see the county do a better job at appraising all the new structures being built, particularly those in the Terlingua area.

“I don’t think they’ve been down there enough to understand that a lot of the old vacant land now has a building on it and needs to be valued accordingly,” he said.

Brewster County officials have already been discussing the possibility of hiring someone to go after unpaid “hotel occupancy taxes” in the county, an effort that Cobos said should be continued.

“This is something that’s so important, to have something that’s advanced, professionally done, to see fairness with respect for everyone,” he said. “And [it’s] so important for the people to have that transparency, accountability on this issue that’s there right now.”

What the candidates say they hope to achieve

The Alpine forum closed with comments from each of the candidates on what, in general, they hope to achieve if elected.

Cobos said he would focus on the “health, safety and welfare of the community” and to support “healthy economic development that will not impact the air, water and communities.”

Henington said his top priorities would be a balanced county budget and continuing to work on local EMS issues.

“If I can get involved in something with my expertise in EMS and help end up with a regional EMS that’s good for the citizens of Brewster County and Presidio County, then that would be a great ending to a career for me,” he said.

Chiles closed by saying he doesn’t “know all the answers,” but that he would be committed to public service as commissioner.

“I know that going forward, I can learn what it takes to do this job, and you’ll really appreciate the service that I can provide,” he said. “I do know that I have the tenacity of a honey badger to go after and dig and find the answers, and let’s come back and create solutions.”

Colando told the crowd that she has been “honored and blessed every day” to serve as commissioner, and that she feels she has already made progress toward a “stronger, more resilient and more helpful county government.”

“Being a public servant and having the opportunity to serve people has been the most fulfilling job I could have ever hoped for,” she said.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.