Tag Archives: SXSW fee waivers

Special Event Fee Waivers: Will The Old Guard Please Sit Down, Will The New Guard Please Stand Up!

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!

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Should the City Council Wave Goodbye to Special Event Fee Waivers?

By Bill Oakey – May 5, 2014

Once upon a time when Austin was a much smaller city, our local officials did not hesitate to waive the fees for all kinds of special events for things like parades and festivals that benefited the community.  These fees cover everything from park maintenance to permits to security and law enforcement services.  Today, as Austin has grown into an international destination, the cost of managing crowds and handling a host of other festival related functions has grown exponentially.  Many of the fees for those services are still being waived, even for companies that are not dedicated to charities.  And much of the cost to do that comes right out of our property tax bills.

At the April meeting of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, Police Chief Art Acevedo received a thunderous round of applause when he made an appeal for canceling future fee waivers for the SXSW Festival.  This year’s tab for those waivers came in at $756,000.  As Acevedo pointed out, the Police Dept. must compete with other departments for scarce budget dollars.  And when funds are not available to pay for extra police at major public events, neighborhood patrols must be reduced and crime intervention is placed at risk.

Is It Time for a New Special Events Fund?

Last week City Council Member Kathie Tovo put forth a comprehensive and quite innovative resolution to create a new Special Events Fund.  Tovo’s co-sponsors on the resolution were Bill Spelman and Mike Martinez.  This new fund would either supplement or potentially reduce large fee waiver draws from the General Fund, thus saving taxpayers some money and eliminating gaps in funding for parks and police.  Possible sources for the new fund could include ticket surcharges for event patrons, as well as expenditures from the hotel and bed tax.

There are several components of the adopted resolution that reflect a wise effort to plan and review the concept carefully.  These include soliciting input from citizen boards and commissions, and asking City staff to review special event procedures from other cities.  The specific aspects of both large and small events will be reviewed.  In addition, the resolution asks for new guidelines and a matrix to evaluate fee waiver applications for large events.  You can read the resolution here.

It is not clear from my initial reading of the resolution whether the proposed fee waiver guidelines in combination with the new Special Events Fund would result in eliminating most of the waivers.  That certainly appears to be the goal.  But here’s my question.  If enough money is generated from the new fund, wouldn’t the festival organizers apply for a portion of those funds and then use the money awarded to pay the required City fees?   Ticket surcharges turned over to the City would also negate the need for waivers.  I plan to address those questions and some others at a City Hall meeting next week.  It looks like some taxpayer relief may be finally headed our way on this issue.