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Legislature lets Marfa use hotel occupancy tax on airport improvements

June 8th, 2017 under Top Stories
(staff photo by ROBERT LOUIS HALPERN) Passenger jets and turboprop aircraft are ferrying more folks to Marfa for destination weddings, art openings, ecotourism, and hunting. Nine aircraft were on the ground recently at one time, including the five aircraft pictured above.

(staff photo by ROBERT LOUIS HALPERN)
Passenger jets and turboprop aircraft are ferrying more folks to Marfa for destination weddings, art openings, ecotourism, and hunting. Nine aircraft were on the ground recently at one time, including the five aircraft pictured above.

By JOHN DANIEL GARCIA

johndaniel@bigbendnow.com

MARFA – The Marfa Municipal Airport could be seeing some much-needed improvements as Texas lawmakers approved Senate Bill 440 and House Bill 902, which will allow the municipality of Marfa to utilize some Hotel Occupancy Tax funds on the airport’s capital improvements projects.

The identical bills, carried in the Senate by Far West Texas Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, and state Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, who represents Far West Texas, outlined the need for using the funds in small towns such as Marfa, that “are becoming increasingly popular tourist destinations and that most of these small towns do not have a commercial airport capable of accommodating the increasingly large aircraft coming into the areas surrounding these towns.”

The Senate version of the bill was passed on April 4 with a vote of 29 – 2, with all votes against the bill cast by Senate Republicans and the House Bill was passed on May 21 with a vote of 107 – 32 with all dissenting votes also cast by Republican representatives.

The law didn’t need Governor Greg Abbott’s signature and went into effect on Monday, May 29.

“Marfa increasingly is seeing air traffic at its airport. Legislative approval for the city’s ability to dedicate funds toward improving the airport was a local priority,” Rodríguez said of the bill, which was initiated after meetings with local leaders, including former Marfa Mayor Dan Dunlap and with Nevarez. “I was happy to lead the local initiative in the Legislature and pass SB 440.”

The bill was tailor-made for the Marfa airport, narrowly written with caveats that the municipalities that would be allowed to use the funds must be the seat of a county bordering Mexico; that the county must border another county that is also bordering Mexico, has a population of less than 5,000 people, and has an observatory; is bordering another county in which a national park of more than 40,000 acres is located; and is more than 150 miles from the nearest commercial airport.

The bill narrowly expands the use of the hotel-motel tax, which normally is used for advertising to attract tourists and travelers. The use of up to 15 percent the Hotel Occupancy Tax funds for the airport will only be allowed for 10 consecutive years over a 15-year span.

At a January Marfa City Council meeting, former Mayor Dunlap informed the council and the public of the then-nascent bill, explaining that the airport would be allowed to receive around $60,000 per year using the previous fiscal year’s Hotel Occupancy Tax figures, ostensibly as matching funds for Texas Department of Transportation Aviation Department grants. The city also qualifies for a $9 match from TXDoT for every $1 spent by the city.

According to Presidio County Airports Manager Chase Snodgrass, the Marfa Airport currently generates around $60,000 per month in off-airport spending (hotel and motel bookings, restaurants, and shops) making the airport one of the city and county’s highest-yielding assets.

“These improvements are anticipated to yield a high return on investment with significant direct benefits to local hotels, restaurants, art galleries and other tourist oriented businesses,” said Snodgrass. “The airport is one of the most effective tools available to Presidio County and the City of Marfa to export the local tax burden.”

The airport, he added, has already begun to engineer and draw plans for the improvements, which are being paid for through the airport’s fuel sales though funding for construction has not been determined. The first phase of construction, he added, is expected to be around $3 million.

The airport’s main runway is in much need of rehabilitation, as more – and heavier – corporate jets now land here. Last December the Federal Aviation Administration briefly closed the airport to aircraft and jets that exceeded the load limit of the runway, before rescinding the order.

According to newly-elected Mayor Ann Marie Nafziger, the timing of the use of the tax dollars for the airport will not go into effect until the city council votes on whether or not to use the funds.

The bill as written, she also said, will benefit the city and airport without over-using the tax funds.

“The bill is really limited, which I think is great. It’s got some good stipulation, but when and how much of the Hotel Occupancy Tax is used is up to city council,” she said, adding that the aim of the bill being specifically to the City of Marfa is rare. “It’s really fascinating that Marfa’s the only municipality that this bill applies to. The specificity to Marfa is really unique.”

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