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Audit leads to hotel tax collection

Monday, March 6, 2006 by

First, the bad news: According to a report released by the City Auditor last week, Austin hotels and motels failed to pay more than half a million dollars in hotel taxes owed to the city over the past four years. Then the good news: Comptroller Jeff Knodel says delinquent hotels have sent the city about $350,000 of that within the past month.

Knodel said the city received $298,329 for taxes due from the Holiday Inn on Town Lake and $13,942 from Candlewood Suites. Both are part of the Intercontinental Group.

In a memo to the City Council last week, City Auditor Stephen Morgan noted that his office uncovered the delinquency during an audit of 28 Austin hotels and motels. Of those, 13 were found to have “compliance issues and/or additional tax liability totaling over $500,000.” Six audits had not been completed.

Acting Assistant City Auditor Corrie Stokes said the new audit report is the second part of a project her office initiated last year. In the first part, auditors looked at how the comptroller was managing the hotel occupancy tax as it came into the city. That report was released in August.

The auditor’s office learned what to look for when auditing hotels from an outside consultant hired to train the staff, Stokes said. Warning signals include a great deal of variation from quarter to quarter in the amount of taxes collected or a significant difference from what a hotel or motel of that size and type would generally collect.

The city has about 180 lodging places. The initial group to be audited was selected on the basis of various risk factors, including a delinquent account, Stokes said. The auditors will be looking to see what new hotels have sprouted up since the last time they did a risk assessment, Stokes said, to decide which to audit in the future.

In addition, the auditor’s office reported: ”Austin hotels operate in an environment of lenient enforcement and insufficient communication with regard to the hotel occupancy tax, which may contribute to the level and types of compliance problems identified.” One problem faced by prospective motel owners—particularly small, independent motels—is that they do not realize they could be liable for taxes not paid by their predecessors.

The auditor’s office recommended that the city strengthen regulations to enhance compliance.

Austin brings in between $25 and $30 million per year in hotel occupancy tax revenues. The money helps fund the Austin Convention Center, among other things.

Duplex plans shake historic commission

The Historic Landmark Commission shook a disapproving finger – but could do little more – when it came to John Yonge’s plans to put a duplex on West 11th Street.

Yonge intends to build a duplex on an empty lot in the middle of Clarksville, a national register historic district. The duplex is contemporary in design, two stories in scale, with carports in front of the building. HLC has the right to review his permit, but can do little more than comment. Members had plenty of comments for Yonge at this week’s meeting, none good.

Commissioner Julia Bunton was both angry and somewhat upset when she questioned Yonge, asking him if he knew the history of the neighborhood. Yonge said he knew some, but not all, the facts about the area. Bunton would go on to tell her colleagues that she had long fought to protect Clarksville, an often-losing battle.

“I have fought the battle, and sometimes I would go home and cry,” admitted Bunton. “It’s like there is no longer a sense of value to Austin and that hurt.”

Bunton said a large-scale duplex of modern design was a slap in the face of Clarksville’s history. A modern duplex was inconsistent with an area intended to commemorate the homes of freed slaves.

Commissioner Jean Mather, who was also alarmed and upset by the design, added that double carports and double garages were not consistent with any neighborhood plan and should not be acceptable in Clarksville. Yonge defended the choice, saying placement along the side exceeded impervious cover limits.

“I wish we had more power, but we don’t,” Mather said before Yonge took the microphone to defend his choices. “Any comments we would make would be going over his head.”

Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky pulled Yonge’s case from last month’s agenda so he could meet with the Clarksville Community Development Corp. The duplex was not out of scale with the neighborhood – it was only 26 feet tall – but it was out of character with many of the surrounding homes, Sadowsky told the commission.

Mary Reed presented a CCDC petition opposed to the project on three grounds: The project was out of character with the neighborhood. Yonge showed no remorse or concern about the neighborhood’s concerns, nor did he offer any intention of reworking the project to better reflect the character of the neighborhood.

Chair Lisa Limbacher also made a speech, telling Yonge he could have at least used enough care to follow some of the design guidelines set out in the neighborhood plan.

Blake Tollett of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association urged the HLC to continue its support of local historic districts. Such districts would provide local homeowners with more control over the compatibility of design in neighborhoods.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Early Voting . . . The final total on early voting for tomorrow's Texas Primary in Travis County was 2.63 percent of the 545,797 registered voters. The polling station drawing the most votes was the Randalls in Lakeway with 1,296, followed by the Randalls on Research with 1143 and the Randalls on Bee Cave with 1,015. Travis County early voters included 7,865 Democrats and 6,508 Republicans. In Williamson County, 5,312 early votes were cast. The breakdown was a little more lopsided, with 4,458 Republicans and only 853 Democrats casting ballots. The polls are open 7am to 7pm tomorrow. . . . A few good election judges . . . The Travis County Democratic Party is still looking for a few last-minute election judges. The vacancies are in Precinct 201 at 18312 Cameron Rd., Precinct 316 at the Travis County Parks Office, 14624 Hamilton Pool Rd., and Precinct 375 at Deer Creek Ranch Amenities Center, 2600 Quiet Moon Tr. If you can serve at any of these locations, call 477-7500 to volunteer. . . O'Connor Extension . . . The Texas Department of Transportation in cooperation with Williamson County will conduct a project Open House for the proposed extension of O'Connor Road. The Open House will be held between 5 and 8pm Tuesday at the Brushy Creek Community Center, 16318 Great Oaks Drive in Round Rock. . . . Meetings . . . The Music Commission meets at 6pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall. . . . The Board of Adjustment/Sign Review Board meets in a special called meeting at 11:30am in room 240 at One Texas Center . . . The Historic Preservation Task Force meets at 5:30pm in room 240 at One Texas Center . . . The Austin Community College Board of Trustees meets at 6pm in the Highland Business Center at 5930 Middle Fiskville Road . . . On-line government petition certified . . . City Clerk Shirley Gentry has certified the second petition for a charter amendment submitted by Save Our Springs Alliance for submission to voters in May. Gentry estimated that the Open Government petition contained the signatures of 19,946 registered Austin voters based on work done by a UT statistician. The Council will consider the language for this petition, as well as others, at this Thursday's Council meeting.

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