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Brewster County cutting ties with company tapped to help enforce hotel occupancy taxes

Hannah Gentiles for Marfa Public Radio
A view of teepees for rent in the Terlingua area in August 2022.

Brewster County officials are cutting ties with a company they hired less than a year ago to help address a growing problem of short-term rental owners not paying lodging-related taxes.

In January, county commissioners voted to tap the Austin-based tech firm GovOS to help build an online database of the many Airbnbs and other short-term rentals that have sprung up in the county in recent years. The county signed a $20,000 annual contract with the company in February.

The plan was an effort to modernize how the county tracks short-term rentals, with a goal of identifying rental owners who were failing to pay hotel occupancy taxes, or “HOT” taxes, as they’re often called.

In Texas, the state and many local governments have instituted such taxes, which tourists pay when they book stays at hotels, Airbnbs or other short-term rentals. Rental owners are then required to hand over the tax to the government entities.

But in the Big Bend region, where short-term rentals often take the form of rustic off-grid cabins and far-flung desert campsites, local officials have struggled to keep track of how many rentals are on the market and to ensure rental owners are paying the lodging taxes. That’s prompted frustration and complaints of unfair treatment from rental owners who do pay.

Still, at a county commissioners meeting Tuesday, officials said the GovOS platform - which allows for everything from online rental licensing and registration to tax collection - had proven to be more than the county needed.

"We just needed a good grasp of where all these short-term rentals are, who they are," Robert Alvarez, head of the Brewster County Tourism Council, told commissioners. His group, funded largely by local lodging taxes, runs the county's "Visit Big Bend" promotional efforts."

Alvarez also cited “internal problems” within the company that contributed to the county’s decision to part ways with the company.

“So we haven’t had the customer service that we had wanted,” he said. “But at the end of the day, more or less, we got some information, so it wasn’t a totally wasted effort or anything.”

County Judge Greg Henington, the top local elected official, echoed those concerns.

“In our opinion, it is overkill, and way disorganized,” he said.

GovOS did not respond to a request for comment.

In an interview, Henington said officials planned to let the county’s current contract with GovOS expire early next year, which may or may not require a vote from commissioners. His office will then maintain its own database of short-term rentals.

“I think we can do it in-house,” he said. “We just decided it wasn’t worth the time or the effort to mess with these guys.”

Henington said officials are likely to revisit some previously discussed ideas for cracking down on unpaid lodging taxes.

“We’re going to look at the concept of registration [for rental properties], and we’re certainly going to cross-check back to everybody that has registered or we think has an Airbnb in the county, and make sure those taxes are being reported,” he said.

Sara Allen Colando, county commissioner for the Terlingua area, said she was “very disappointed that it didn’t work out with GovOS,” but that she understood why Henington and Alvarez wanted to move to an in-house option.

“I know a lot of folks were excited about the new interface and the ability to register and pay hotel occupancy tax online,” she said. “I haven’t given up on bringing the county HOT tax collection into the 21st century.”

According to Alvarez, officials have also in recent months discovered that the total number of short-term rentals believed to be in the county has been “inflated” in various estimates from GovOS and other market analytics firms.

While some estimates have put the number in the hundreds - the firm AirDNA reports more than 400 active rental listings in Brewster County outside the Alpine area - Alvarez said these types of firms often count single rental properties multiple times because they appear simultaneously on different rental sites like Airbnb and VRBO. The actual number in south Brewster County and Marathon is currently “hovering around 300,” he said.

Alvarez said he felt the GovOS effort had made “some progress” toward the ultimate goal of cracking down on lodging tax enforcement.

“We learned a lot, and we got some decent base data,” he said. “It didn’t fix everything, it got us halfway there.”

Alvarez said the tourism council’s board of directors, which mostly includes local business owners in the tourism industry, is likely to support any action local officials decide to take on the hotel occupancy tax issue.

“My board has basically said, commissioners, y’all do what you want and we will back you,” he said.

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