tererBy Bill Oakey – June 3, 2015
For the past several years, various citizen groups, City Commissions and the Austin American-Statesman editorial board have called for doing away with taxpayer funded fee waivers for large for-profit special events. This endless stream of subsidies adds up to somewhere around $2 million per year. Of course, the granddaddy of them all is South By Southwest.
The Old Guard message has always been the same. That these big festivals bring in tourists and boost the economy. They claim that the fee waivers are a “sound investment.” In reality, they put a strain on the taxpayers that has persisted for far too long. At the biggest events, public safety is severely compromised, with police shortages in neighborhoods citywide. It’s time for the New Guard at City Hall to stand up and tell these event promoters that we just can’t afford it anymore.
The question comes down to priorities. If the City insists on not making the for-profit event companies pay their own fees, then they could easily fund the subsidies with the Hotel Occupancy Tax. The revenues from that fund have ballooned from $51 million in 2012 to over $70 million in 2014.
The Old Guard prefers to restrict every penny of the Hotel Occupancy Tax for tourism and convention activities. Their lobbyists have erected a wall of resistance around City Hall. But what are the community’s priorities? Do we have a crisis in Austin with low tourism rates, or do we see new hotels popping up like mushrooms? A couple of million dollars per year would be a minor tick to the tourism fund, but it would certainly help offset the tax burden when combined with other affordabilty reforms.
In May of last year, Council Member Kathie Tovo got a resolution passed directing the City Manager to review usage of the Hotel Occupanct Tax and ticket surcharges as alternatives to the event subsidies. His report was due last August and was specifically timed for last summer’s budget talks. That deadline passed and a new one for this August emerged. in a Long Term Analysis of Special Events, City Manager Marc Ott proposed a new plan that completely sidesteps the Tovo resolution. He wants to establish multi-year City agreements with the major event organizers. If the watchdogs amongst us are not careful, the taxpayers could easily get locked into muti-year fee waiver subsidies.
Sometime between last May and November, the previous City Council heard from vested interests on the Music Commission and the Arts Commission that the Hotel Occupancy Tax should be off limits for special event fee waivers. But the new City Council is appointing brand new members to all boards and commissions. And here’s a parting thought. Lean closer and let me whisper a suggestion that has not appeared on any Council agenda or City Manager memo…Psst…Why not make the for-profit event owners PAY AT LEAST SOME OF THEIR OWN FEES? Sorry, that wasn’t a whisper, but I couldn’t help myself!
Here’s What You Can Do to Help
Use this single link to email the Mayor and all Council Members to ask for an end to the fee waiver subsidies. We can make positive changes if we look forward and we work hard enough. Will the Old Guard please sit down, and will the New Guard please stand up!
Thanks for the encouragement to contact the City Council. And for all you do for Austin! Clare Hudspeth