Point Austin: Hot Over HOT
Council wrangles over Convention Center, hotel taxes, and Downtown’s future
If I can tear your attention away for a moment from hurricane aftermath and presidential malfeasance, there's a fight brewing at City Hall that will soon demand plenty of public oxygen. The argument is over Mayor Steve Adler's "Downtown Puzzle," a central piece of which involves the proposed expansion of the Convention Center – certainly not a foregone conclusion, but a project strongly desired by Downtown hoteliers and other folks broadly associated with the tourism industry. There are also plenty of people who believe it's a bad idea – who think it's a Downtown boondoggle, a lousy investment, or simply unnecessary.
Those arguments will be aired out in due course – some of them probably today, Thursday, Aug. 31, when City Council is scheduled to take up two Items which have become placeholders for a larger debate about the mayor's solution to the "Puzzle." Item 60 (sponsored by Council Member Ellen Troxclair), would reallocate some of the existing 15% hotel occupancy tax away from the Convention Center (and its affiliated "Visit Austin" marketing bureau) to other needs; e.g., cultural institutions, parks, and heritage sites. Item 101 (a late addendum by the mayor) would initiate the "Puzzle," in a complex mix of increasing the HOT to its statutory limit of 17%, funding a Convention Center expansion, enlisting the hotels to establish a "Tourism Public Improvement District," creating a funding stream to address Downtown homelessness ... and other pieces to support heritage sites and the music industry (see "Council: Heating Up the HOT Tax," Sept. 1, and "Council: Downtown Puzzle or Rubik's Cube?" online, Aug. 28).
It's a complicated discussion, and the mayor has made it clear he would prefer to postpone it until late September, after the adoption of the FY 2018 budget. Instead, a heated debate broke out on the dais at Tuesday's nearly all-day work session, which followed an hour of comity over the city's preparation for and welcoming of evacuees from Hurricane Harvey.
All Not Aboard
It's not surprising that the mayor would be at loggerheads with Troxclair, who (since the departure of Don Zimmerman) has become the default hardcore conservative on the dais. Late last week, she and Adler exchanged barbs over Item 60 on the Council message board, and there were even sharper exchanges on the dais Tuesday afternoon – with the usually placid mayor as hot as I've ever seen him in public. He insisted that Troxclair's proposals were neither feasible nor sufficiently vetted, while she pressed him to tell her precisely what changes he would recommend. He responded heatedly with some immediate objections, adding that until he had time to review her (just submitted) amendments, he would not be able to be more precise.
But Adler's frustrations are not being generated solely by Troxclair. CMs Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool, and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo grilled him and city staff at length about the various Puzzle proposals, and made it clear that they consider Convention Center expansion – a financial centerpiece to everything else in his Puzzle solution – a distinct matter that needs its own Council and public debate. Adler didn't dispute that – but meanwhile, he considers the Troxclair resolution an arrow aimed in advance at his larger Puzzle plan (which he's already successfully promoted to a wide range of business and public interest groups, prior to a formal Council proposal). He sounds fairly desperate to deflect that arrow before it kills his infant in its crib.
Some Assembly Required
We'll learn today how successful he's been, although it seems a fairly easy argument to make that the whole megillah, from TPIDs to TIFs, needs more public discussion and input. There are plenty of confusing details in the mix – Kitchen, for example, who appears as a co-sponsor on both pending Items, repeatedly insisted that she doesn't see them as incompatible, nor that the Convention Center expansion question can't be answered separately from reallocating the currently burgeoning HOT revenues. There were also plenty of confounding statistics and percentages flying around the chamber, some bolstering dubious arguments that the Convention Center plays such a minor role in local tourism that any discussion of expansion is pointless. (I guess all those hotels live on air, or midnight swims at Barton Springs.)
Having spent frustrating days attempting to navigate the Center when it's bursting at the seams, I do not agree it's self-evident that no expansion is necessary. On the other hand, nor am I yet persuaded that Austin needs a bigger and better Convention Center in order to fund permanent supportive housing for the crowds overwhelming the ARCH, or to support the Mexican American Cultural Center, or to buy the Palm School, or to subsidize Downtown music clubs. Those are just some of the puzzle pieces still in Mayor Adler's plan for assembly, and at a minimum we need more time to learn if indeed they all fit together, or even if most of us can agree that they correspond to the shiny, future picture of Downtown that appears on the box.