Point Austin: About That Puzzle
Council seeks consensus on a still-hatching Downtown project
The dust has hardly settled on last Thursday's City Council meeting, when – diverted intermittently by plenty of other business – Council voted unanimously to approve, in principle, allocating 15% (currently about $11 million) of the hotel occupancy tax revenues to "heritage preservation," a catch-all category of historic and cultural resources eligible (under state law) for "tourism-related" funding. That the final vote was unanimous was a surprise, since council members had been in a hot mess over the issue for several days, beginning with a previous work session and reinforced by the day's debate, as sparks flared on the dais between Mayor Steve Adler and the sponsoring council members: Ellen Troxclair, Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool, and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo.
The root of the dispute was the mayor's fear that reallocating money currently going to the Convention Center and its marketing wing ("Visit Austin") would effectively torpedo his pending "Downtown Puzzle" – a complex proposition (postponed to Sept. 28) that includes raising the current HOT rate from 15% to 17%, expanding the Center, establishing a hotel-based Tourism Public Improvement District, and using moneys generated by both those initial steps to address Downtown homelessness, supplement the Waller Creek project, and support cultural resources, especially the music industry.
Without rehashing the Puzzle pieces – they'll be spilling all over Council's kitchen table in the next few weeks – the mayor and his colleagues were all finally persuaded that they could initiate the HOT reallocation without necessarily jeopardizing the Puzzle. Unanimity arrived when two amendments – one ensuring protection of the Puzzle option, another directing a staff programmatic analysis of the HOT shift before formal reallocation – were added to Troxclair's resolution.
Everybody presumably went home happy, including members of the public who had testified on either side and then found reason to celebrate "victory" for apparently opposing positions: that is, "Downtown interests" (those Convention Center baddies) against "the rest of us" (small-business and cultural advocates). Afterward, I asked Kitchen – the only council member who co-sponsored both the Troxclair resolution and the mayor's alternative – "What just happened?" Kitchen continued to insist that the two proposals are not incompatible, and that the mayor was mistaken to worry that by reallocating the HOT revenues Council would inevitably undermine the potential for a broader Downtown project.
"It's a two-step process," Kitchen told me. "We've created the bucket enabling the reallocation of HOT funding, for historic preservation and related projects. The second step is the actual appropriation, when we vote on the budget." In the meantime, staff is charged with "crunching the numbers and seeing if the [Puzzle] relationship will work."
On Thursday, Kitchen had several tense exchanges with Adler, but she explained, "I do not mean to imply that he was intentionally misinforming or misleading. He really believed that the reallocation would endanger the larger Downtown project; I really believe that it will not." Kitchen acknowledged that there is not yet a Council consensus on how to proceed on the "four pieces": the Convention Center, the homeless funding, Waller Creek TIF, and the music industry. But she summarized the mayor's proposal as "very innovative – a big-picture, global look at the problems, and I very much appreciate that."
By this week, Mayor Adler had also come around to a calmer look at Thursday's outcome, and was busy informing the various Puzzle designers – the plan is supported by dozens of business, social service, and public interest groups – that Thursday's vote was just one more step in getting the project rolling. "My main argument was that we just didn't have the data yet, in order to make a final decision on the reallocation," he told me this week. "Once we added those amendments – that we could protect the Puzzle, and that we would wait for the data to be provided by staff – I had no trouble supporting as much as we can afford for heritage preservation.
"The aim is the same," he continued. "To maximize the money to be moved to other city projects. The question I have is how much of that we can do without killing the enterprise that actually makes it possible." As for the visible tension on the dais, he said, "We were all kind of talking past each other … but we were trying to get to the same place."
The mayor might be overly optimistic about the potential for Council consensus, but he noted that he has four co-sponsors for his initial Puzzle resolution. "People are beginning to see it as a way to unlock funds for homelessness Downtown, and the ARCH. Part of my job," he concluded, "is to lay out new and different kinds of options to address problems we can't otherwise address. I'm hopeful that we can get [the Puzzle resolution] passed in September, and use the next three months to work out the details." As with most puzzles, it's those broad undefined patches that require the most time to solve.