Tag Archives: Austin special events

A Resolution To The Solution Of Meaningless City Council Resolutions

By Bill Oakey – July 11, 2015

On Friday I reported that the City Manager’s Office finally provided a response to the many months of questions surrounding the long-delayed May 1, 2014 City Council resolution dealing with special event fee waivers. Well, I am (somewhat, but not really) pleased to announce that late on Friday I received another update.

Update On July 10, 3:04 PM

From Mr. William “Bill” Manno:

Mr. Oakey, please see my responses below.

  1. Will the report include an evaluation of using ticket surcharges as an alternate funding source? Response: Surcharges are included in the discussion.
  1. Will your report to the City Council by October or earlier be coordinated with the Parkland Events Task Force as part of their review of special events funding? Response: That is very likely, however, we will have to wait until that task force begins to meet and sets its agendas.
  1. What is the status of the staff proposal for multi-year agreements for large special events that was addressed in the City Manager’s memo shown below? Will that topic be addressed in your report on alternate funding sources? Or will these be two separate reports? Response: They are related, but separate issues.

My Conclusions

Friday’s update showed that the resolution’s required deadline of August 2014 that got extended without City Council approval to August 2015, has now been extended to “October, if not sooner.” This little peek into the back rooms of City Hall should be a powerful lesson for anyone wishing to become engaged with “the process.” When I first became a citizen activist in the mid-1980’s, my mother started out by telling me what all mothers say, “You can’t fight City Hall.” Well, it tuns out that you can not only fight them, but you can win. However, the watchdog and reform business requires a level of patience and persistence that can only be described as crazy. Let me put it this way. If you really want to take on City Hall, you don’t do a little tiptoe up the steps and a little rap-tap on the door. You grab the entire building by its foundation and shake it till the bureaucrats’ eyeballs rattle in their sockets!

Lessons Learned From This Exercise

City Council resolutions with lofty language such as, “Now therefore, be it resolved…The City Manager Is Directed To,” and “This report is due back to the City Council no later than…” etc. carry about as much weight under today’s procedures as a feather in a hurricane. Stay tuned for an effort to establish a policy to make these resolutions respect the dignity of the folks who appear at the very top of the City’s official Organization Chart…The Residents of Austin.

The City Can Save $4 Million Every Year – But There Is a Huge Mountain To Climb

By Bill Oakey – July 10, 2015

In the last few weeks I have met with several City Council offices. One of my top cost-saving priorities is to replace taxpayer-funded special event fee waivers with alternate funding. In May of last year, the City Council passed Resolution # 20140501-036 directing the City Manager to review options for this alternate funding. The intent and the deadline were crystal clear:

“The City Manager is directed to present the proposal for the special events fund and fee waiver process by August 7, 2014 to allow Council to consider the proposals as part of the City’s budget process.”

We now know that last August’s deadline came and went with no formal response to the resolution. So, we have a critical policy issue and very possibly a legal one as well. When the City Council passes a resolution and it is signed and placed into the public record, does it carry the force of law? You would think that a change to the substance and intent of a resolution, or a change to the deadline for directed action would require another public vote by the City Council. This is certainly true of City Ordinances. Is there any provision in the City Charter or the City Code that addresses required actions to amend a resolution? Is there a process in place to follow up on the status of resolutions to ensure that they don’t fall through the cracks?

Not only does the City need to establish a clear set of policies and procedures for timely implementation and amending of resolutions, but the process needs to be made transparent to the public. It would be most helpful if the Council Members, their staffs and the public could go online and check the status of a pending ordinance or resolution. It is my understanding that Council Member Ann Kitchen is interested in pursuing a model that is similar to the one that it is used in the Texas Legislature. And I am looking into resolution tracking systems that have been adopted in other cities.

Here’s what can happen when no one on the outside can see what the insiders are doing with a Council resolution. I found an undated City Manager’s PowerPoint presentation on the City’s website that reveals that they were attempting to comply with the May 1, 2014 resolution on special events funding. Slide # 17 in the presentation shows that 30 Texas cities use funding sources other than fee waivers to support special events. Most of those cities use Hotel Occupancy Tax funds. In the PowerPoint, the staff was told to bring back a funding plan for Council action in time for the resolution’s August 2014 deadline.

But sometime between this presentation and November of 2014, a major intervention took place behind the scenes. Without a vote of the City Council directing him to do so, the City Manager issued a memo to the Council on November 7th. This memo addresses a completely new approach to handling large special events. Although no detailed backup is provided, the aspect of alternate funding sources is dropped from the discussion. The central topic has shifted from single-year contracts with large event promoters to multi-year agreements. Under that arrangement, the local taxpayers could very well find themselves locked into the status quo system of funding special events with fee waivers.

Keep in mind that last November the old City Council was still in office. Here is what the City Manager related to them in his memo:

I have directed staff to take the next several months to gather the necessary information to develop recommendations that can be evaluated as we begin discussion of the upcoming FY2015-2016 budget process.”

So, it appears that the City Manager and his staff are operating on a path to action that is, at the very least, unclear to the public and unclear to the newly elected City Council members. In my meetings with them, I have found no one who is aware of what the City Manager’s staff is working on with respect to the November memo. In another twist, I have been informed that the question of how to fund City services for special events will be taken up by the Parkland Events Task Force. When you click the link to their page, you will notice that they have not held any meeting yet, and in fact the City is still accepting applications for new members. In addition, the primary function of the task force is addressed in a completely different resolution.

My efforts are focused on a compromise plan to pay for special events from three sources: The Hotel Occupancy Tax, surcharges on ticket sales, and requiring the event companies to pay a reasonable portion of their own fees. I have asked the City Council to set an early 2016 deadline for studies and discussions of the new funding formula. In the meantime, I have asked them not to fund any fee waivers for large for-profit events with local tax dollars in the new budget.

We have a new City Council that wants to find cost-savings in the budget. They have also promised a high level of public engagement and better transparency. Later this month when the Council members get back to town, I will post a link for you to email them and ask them not to include any local taxpayer funding for special events. It’s a golden opportunity to save $4 million per year in recurring expenses. But it will never happen unless they commit to a firm timetable to establish a new funding formula. And whatever path the City Manager’s Office is taking on the matter needs to be clarified and communicated to the City Council.

Update on July 10th, 11:53 AM

I just received the following email from Mr. William “Bill” Manno, City of Austin Management Services, Corporate Special Events Program Manager. This information request was forwarded by Mayor Pro-Tem Kathie Tovo’s office.

Mr. Oakey,

The presentation you referenced was one I made for the very first stakeholder group meeting for the specific purpose of getting the conversations started.  It is in no way the final report to this Resolution and should only be used as a reference as to how this process was started.  The response to Resolution is currently being drafted and will be sent to Council by October, if not sooner.  The research mentioned in that presentation was done by interns and was limited to identifying cities that in some way use HOT funds for events.  I have staff currently doing more in-depth research as to how they actually apply those funds.  This information will be included in the report back to Council.

Resolution No. 20140501-036 included the following language:

“WHEREAS, the City collected approximately $54.8 million from hotel occupancy taxes in Fiscal Year 2012 and these collections from Austin hotels are used to fund the Austin Convention Center, the Austin Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, and the City’s Cultural Arts Program; and

WHEREAS, the City’s Music Commission has recommended that City Council explore other funding mechanisms for special events, including considering whether anticipated increases in hotel occupancy taxes could support special events costs;”

Therefore, the report will discuss other cities’ use of HOT funds, however, it will be Council’s decision as to what aspects of alternative funding mechanisms they wish to move forward with.

Please feel free to contact me directly should you have further questions.  Until the report is finalized and presented to Mayor and Council, it would inappropriate to release any portion of the report.

Thanks,

Bill

Special Event Fee Waivers – Other Texas Cities Prefer Hotel Occupancy Tax

By Bill Oakey – June 4, 2015

The quest to eliminate taxpayer-subsidized special event fee waivers may get a boost, thanks to the discovery of a little-publicized City Manager’s Power Point presentation from mid-2014. This presentation followed the May 1st passage of City Council Resolution # 20140501-036, sponsored by Kathie Tovo, directing the City Manager to review alternative funding sources for special event fee waivers. One specified option was to consider using the Hotel Occupancy Tax. A subsequent information request from then Mayor Pro-Tem Sheryl Cole revealed that Austin’s Hotel Occupancy Tax revenues have galloped from $51 million in 2012 to an estimated $70+ million in 2014.

The newly discovered Power Point presentation should put to rest any fleeting suggestion that Austin cannot or should not use Hotel Occupancy Tax funds to replace millions of dollars in fee waivers. This statement appears on Slide # 17: “To date we have researched and found 30 cities in Texas that currently utilize other funding sources for special events that qualify; most utilizing a percentage of HOT Funds administered by the Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB).” Cities cited in the presentation include Cedar Park, Dallas, Georgetown, Giddings, Fredericksburg and Round Rock. You can download the Power Point presentation here.

From an affordability standpoint, here’s a revelation that should catch everyone’s attention. On Slide # 8, charts show that in 2013 the City granted $1,146,127 in fee waivers. But somehow they wound up with a funding gap of $3,110,104 that year. The event costs for all City departments added up to $6,703,457, while fees collected only came to $3,593,353. (The City Transportation Dept. reported the 2013 funding gap to be $4,256,000, with the total five-year deficit from 2009-2013 coming to $10,694,000).

At the City Manager’s Power Point session, Slide # 2 states that an alternate funding proposal for special events was due to his office on July 24th, and to the City Council on August 7th (the date specified in the Council resolution). We now know that something transpired at City Hall between May and November of 2014. Marc Ott’s November 7th memo signaled a new direction for responding to the issue, as well as a new one-year-later deadline. They are now pursuing a plan for multi-year agreements with special event organizers. These carry the potential for locking in the taxpayers to continuous fee waiver subsidies. The whole notion of considering the Hotel Occupancy Tax as an alternate funding source disappeared down the rabbit hole.

But now it is on its way back out…Stay tuned!

Rabbit Hole