Dark Clouds Over Travis County Expo Center?
County and city at an impasse over hotel occupancy tax monies
The era of good feelings following the November election triumph of Travis County Proposition A – authorizing a 2-cent county hotel occupancy tax (HOT) to fund a revitalization of the Travis County Expo Center in East Austin – came to a sudden harsh and noisy end last week as the county and city reached an impasse. Via a Dec. 16 letter, City Manager Spencer Cronk told County Judge Sarah Eckhardt that, despite her previous best efforts, the city would not give up its claim to that same two cents of HOT from Austin hotels, first collected to pay for the Austin Convention Center's 2002 expansion. (The state-allowed maximum HOT rate is 17 cents, the current Austin levy.) Even though that debt was expected by the county to be cleared by 2021, the city still wants the HOT revenue to help pay for the next Convention Center expansion, still in the very early planning stages but expected to be very, very expensive.
Should City Council not choose to overrule Cronk, that means that at least until 2029, Travis County would only be able to collect HOT from hotels outside the Austin city limits. That does not provide nearly enough revenue to fund the $900 million investment envisioned for the Expo Center and nearby Lake Walter E. Long by the county and Rodeo Austin, the center's major tenant and the prime backer of the "Energize the Expo" campaign in favor of the ballot measure. The rodeo does not plan to wait that long before finding a new venue, and Eckhardt, who has for a year sought a commitment from the city to share the HOT revenue, announced via the Statesman that Commissioners Court would in January consider plans to shut down the Expo Center and walk away from the county's lease agreement with the city for the land on which the center sits. This appeared to catch Cronk's team by surprise, with Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzales saying Eckhardt's move was "premature" in a hasty email to a confused Council. For her part, Eckhardt believes that a climb-down by the city could be in the cards, telling the Chronicle, "I still believe in Christmas miracles."