The Fee Waiver Controversy Gets A Brand New Twist – And It’s A Humdinger!

By Bill Oakey – November 11, 2015

We all remember the big brouhaha over special event fee waivers that has raged in the press and at City Council meetings over the past couple of years. It’s a twisted tale of a City Council resolution seeking “alternate funding sources” for the multimillion fee waivers for SXSW and other large event promoters. Of course the money to pay for these waivers comes from you and me, the taxpayers.

So, here’s a quick recap. In May of 2014, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo got a resolution passed unanimously to direct the City Manager to develop a plan to remove the local taxpayers from the fee waivers and pay for them with alternate funding sources. Her suggestions included surcharges on ticket sales and possibly a portion of the Hotel Occupancy Tax. The first resolution deadline of August 2014 came and went with no action. Then a November 2014 memo surfaced, promising a new deadline of August 2015. When that deadline slipped away, I asked for help from a City management contact person.

Mr. William “Bill” Manno in an office called “Management Services” sent me an email this past July 10th, stating that a draft report responding to the Council resolution would be delivered to the City Council by “October, if not sooner.” On Tuesday of this week I emailed Mr. Manno and asked him to please send me a copy of the report.

City politics is a lot like participating in a real life novel of mystery and intrigue. The level of gamesmanship that goes on behind the scenes is stunning. One of my best inside sources at City Hall alerted me today of a fascinating twist in this saga. First, let me mention one quick thing. The City Council accepted my appeals not to include any funding for special event fee waivers in this year’s budget. All along I’ve been hoping that my compromise proposal for alternate funding sources might have a chance.

Well, take a look at these two items coming up on the Council’s Nov. 19th agenda:

67. Approve an ordinance amending the 2015-2016 Fiscal Year Budget to provide funding for public safety during South by Southwest.

( Notes:   SPONSOR – Council Member Leslie Pool )

68. Approve a resolution directing the City Manager to create a long-term plan to address overall public safety during the spring festival season.

( Notes:   SPONSOR – Council Member Leslie Pool )

You will notice one piece of terminology that is conspicuously missing from these items. You guessed it, the phrase “fee waiver” do not appear in the agenda verbiage! Someone with Karl Rove’s knack for political maneuvering decided that “public safety funding” sounds a whole lot prettier and nicer than the dirty old ugly term “fee waiver.” But the end result to the taxpayers is still the same. Instead of requiring event promoters to pay their own fees for City services, or using ticket surcharges or Hotel Occupancy Tax funds, the problem can be solved by simply passing a budget amendment. Let the taxpayers subsidize the additional public safety services.

Since Leslie Pool was not on the Council during the loud public controversy over fee waivers, perhaps she was seen as an easy target by the special interests who have worked behind the scenes to protect the status quo on fee waivers. But the cat is now out of the bag and we still have time to push for adoption of the alternate funding sources originally conceived in the 2014 Tovo resolution.

Here Is My Proposal for Special Event Funding

Compromise Funding Proposal for Special Events By Large For-Profit Companies

By Bill Oakey – November 11, 2015

  1. Do not approve any designated “public safety funding” for special events until a policy is adopted pursuant to Mayor Pro Tem Tovo’s Resolution # 20140501-036. This was the resolution calling for the City Manager to develop an alternate funding plan for special event fee waivers. Please note that Mr. William “Bill Manno” in the Management Services Office made a commitment this past July 10th that a report would be delivered to the City Council by “October of this year, if not sooner.” Providing public safety funding for special events equates to the same thing as granting fee waivers, regardless of whether the “fee waiver” label is used.
  1. Do not approve any multi-year agreements with special event organizers until a non-taxpayer supported funding policy has been formulated.
  1. Ask City staff and the appropriate task force / committee members to develop and recommend a compromise funding strategy with the following three elements:a. A portion to come from the Hotel Occupancy Tax funds. (This would require amending City Code Chapter 11-2, Section (B) (3) that allocates 15% of Hotel Occupancy Tax receipts to the cultural arts).b. Surcharges added to ticket prices for those events. A study could be done to estimate the amount that could be generated from the surcharges at various levels, such as 25 cents, 50 cents, one dollar, etc.

    c. Require the special event companies to pay a portion of their own fees. As a part of this component, the outside companies that piggy-back on SXSW should be required to pay a reasonable fee (or an increase in their current fees, if there are any) when they apply for their permits. SXSW itself may not be entirely to blame for the entire funding gap that has been attributed to them.

Please note that the City’s total service costs for special events exceeds the cost of the current fee waivers. The funding gap was $4.2 million in 2013, per the City Transportation Dept. Report. That’s because the City does not set the fees high enough to cover the actual cost of all services provided. Therefore, the new funding policy that replaces the fee waivers should be formulated sufficiently to completely eliminate any funding gaps. That would result in a zero-cost impact on the local taxpayers. That is what we need. The bottom line is that local taxpayers can no longer afford the cost of the fee waivers. The current fee waiver system is one of the most unpopular programs in all of City government.

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