TIFs, TPIDs, and Puppy Love

City Council wrestles with Mayor Adler's Downtown Puzzle

One indicator of the rhythm of last week’s City Council meeting (Sept. 28) is that the juvenile curfew discussion – Item 103 on the 103-Item agenda – was set for a 6pm “time certain.” In the end, the formal motion didn’t hit the floor until just before midnight – although Mayor Steve Adler made a point of allowing younger Austinites a chance to testify earlier.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and friend (Photo by Michael King)

Credit to the rest of the interested parties that many had stayed on until the witching hour to give their testimony. In a more normal meeting, the decision to put an end to the longstanding juvenile curfew might well have been the headline news. But this day and evening belonged mostly to Mayor Adler’s “Downtown Puzzle” proposal, postponed from Aug. 31 in order to allow more discussion, and also to clear the decks for a more limited reallocation of the Hotel Occupancy Tax, aimed at police resources for the “spring festivals” (i.e., SXSW) and “historic preservation” – the latter also intended to be one piece of the Puzzle.

To end whatever suspense remains: After roughly three hours of testimony and amendments, Council unanimously endorsed the Puzzle – more or less – after making the already exploratory proposition (a direction to staff to analyze the entire set of projects and return with that analysis and the answer to several dozen specific questions) even more exploratory.

The dais is split on the mayor’s grand plan (developed via a year's work by the Visitor Impact Task Force) – most specifically on that piece of it that would trigger an expansion of the Convention Center – so most of the amendments, beginning conversationally in work session Tuesday and then in more formal motion sheets Thursday night, were intended to water down the “directive” language, put more distance between the pieces, and at least raise the possibility that most of the projects could be accomplished without expanding the Center.

For the News staff’s overview, see last week’s issue (“Putting Together the Downtown Puzzle,” Sept. 22). No one project of the group was approved for action – that won’t come until staff returns with its analyses – but the discussion did favor prioritizing the expansion or extension of the Waller Creek Tax Increment Financing district, since statutory restrictions would kick the TIF down the road for another year if Council makes no decision by the end of this year.

In theory, the argument also goes, the TIF could be separated entirely from the rest of the Puzzle, in that it provides its own financing mechanism and focuses on 1) completing the Waller Creek “chain of parks,” and 2) any expansion would take in some areas further Downtown, perhaps reaching as far as Palm Park. Puzzle proponents (who greatly outnumbered opponents in the public testimony) argue that one aspect of the expanded TIF would be additional funding for permanent supportive housing for the homeless, also a goal of the larger Puzzle – presumably offering both more funding (via the proposed “Tourist Public Improvement District,” tied to the expansion) and other synergies. Opponents argue that all the projects could be accomplished without the Convention Center, simply by reallocating most the HOT funding to other purposes.

Simultaneously, District 1 Council Member Ora Houston made certain any expanded TIF would not cross I-35 – “because people on the East side don’t necessarily want to be part of Downtown.” Houston also wants to extend the Puzzle to the Exposition Center (in her District 1), undaunted that that is a Travis County facility (although located on city land), while simultaneously arguing that there are too many projects and it should all again be postponed. Her colleagues didn’t quite buy that, but some – Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, and CMs Ann Kitchen (D5), Leslie Pool (D7), Alison Alter (D10) – did do what they could to make whatever eventually returns to the dais via staff review extremely tentative – while voting for it 10-0. (D8 CM Ellen Troxclair was absent for this meeting.)

Earlier in the day, Council members also took out their collective HOT angst on the staff of Visit Austin (formerly the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau), in a discussion of the agency’s FY 2018 marketing plan and budget (generated by HOT funds). The discussion followed a KXAN-TV "investigative" report suggesting that Visit Austin had spent too much money on “concert tickets, alcohol, and jewelry” (the latter being Kendra Scott promotional items given to official visitors). The Visit Austin staff responded that a marketing and promotion bureau indeed spends considerable money on marketing and promotion, and defended that spending as persuading companies and others to spend plenty of time (and money) in Austin. They could show the numbers – including hotel nights as well as the growth of the HOT funds – to demonstrate it.

Council was not entirely persuaded – this debate also produced an audible split on the dais – but the short-term upshot was a two-week postponement of the budget approval, while Visit Austin presumably answers more Council questions. Since one of Visit Austin’s primary aims is to fill the Convention Center (and consequently Austin hotels and restaurants), the major subtext of this argument was also the potential expansion of the Convention Center. (The debate will return in two weeks.)

Among other major actions:

Curfew No More: No one testified in support of the juvenile curfew (targeted by youth advocacy groups), and after Council’s "denial" of an extension, the ordinance duly expired Oct. 1. An interesting detail was a reversal by interim Austin Police Department Chief Brian Manley. Initially opposed to ending the curfew – he had called it a “useful tool” in dealing with unsupervised adolescents at night – Manley had reviewed the recent history (in concert with a stakeholders’ group) and determined that officers' few uses of curfew violations were neither germane nor necessary for law enforcement. He said the APD would continue to monitor the outcomes, and the work group will consider better alternatives.

In Sickness & Health: Without significant dissent, Council initiated a stakeholders process to develop an ordinance that would require local companies to provide "sick days" to employees (on an earned hours basis). Although there was little backlash in testimony on the dais – and several company spokespeople appeared to support the measure – this one may find its devil in the details. A common sense measure – if there is sufficient common sense in Austin.

Fire on the Line: Council acted to approve the negotiated contract between the city, the Austin Fire Department, and the Austin Firefighters Association, after a briefing that described the new agreement as more frugal than previous years, and a successful compromise on all sides. Nevertheless, sparks flew between AFA President Bob Nicks and the dais, after Houston complained that the union remains an obstruction to greater diversity on the force (to some pushback by former firefighter Garza), and others complained that the contract remains too expensive. Nicks bristled at what he called “insults” by Houston (and others on the dais) to his members, and the exchange cast a shadow on a moment that began as congratulatory.

Union on Stage: Council approved a contract renewal with Zachary Scott Theatre Center, but not before hearing testimony from union organizers that the theater management is continuing to obstruct unionization and has taken illegal action against organizers (reiterating previous complaints to Council). Council approval is now dependent on whatever action might be taken by the National Labor Relations Board, unless the matter can be settled in advance of a scheduled December NLRB hearing.

Woof & Meow: As the meeting opened Thursday morning, the dais was visited by a pup and kitten – Tovo and Pool doing the honors – celebrating a consensus motion to approve a dog training and kitten fostering program for prisoners in the Travis County jail. By midnight, the thought did occur that maybe the program could be extended to provide miscellaneous comfort animals for beleaguered Council members – and maybe the rest of the meeting attendees as well.

For more on City Council, follow the Daily News and this week’s print edition.

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