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Reporter’s Notebook: Look at all these rumors

Monday, September 11, 2017 by Austin Monitor

Film Commission rumor not confirmed… Louis Black, who is retiring as publisher of the Austin Chronicle, emailed City Council last week claiming that the recent vote to allocate a portion of the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax from Visit Austin (previously known as the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau) “to fund operations and maintenance of city historic facilities as well as funding for parks and small businesses,” could have a “devastating impact on the Austin Film Commission.” Black asserted that one of the consequences would be that Visit Austin would cut the budget for the Film Commission “to a detrimental level.” The state has cut money that it provides as incentives for the film industry, but the city does not provide such incentives. Nevertheless, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said she had received a number of emails from people who thought the city was cutting the incentive funding. She said her staff was “trying to get to the bottom of” allegations that the Film Commission would be defunded. Tovo said her records indicate that Visit Austin had about a $65,000 expenditure for its film program this year, covering staff. “So we’re asking the question are there other costs associated with that – because the incentives that get provided, it appears to me, are all coming from the state and other sources. So it’s not that we’re cutting the incentives because those don’t come from HOT taxes.” But Visit Austin has proposed a budget of $192,000 for the film commission next year. A spokesperson for Visit Austin told the Austin Monitor they had “nothing to share” about our inquiry. The Monitor also contacted Black to see if he could give us some evidence about the allegation. He did not get back to us, but the idea matches a story from Chronicle writer Richard Whittaker. After he lost the fight over keeping all of the HOT funding at Visit Austin, Mayor Steve Adler did make a point of saying that Council might revisit the question of reallocating the $11 to $12 million in HOT money during this week’s final budget deliberations. Council will be discussing how they can use the HOT money, but during last week’s hours of budget discussion, no one brought up the idea of fighting over that portion of the money again.

Now primed, apparently… Last week’s news that online retailer Amazon is on the hunt for a city looking to become the home for its second company headquarters – and the expected 50,000 jobs that will come with it – may have sent the Austin business community into a frenzy, but City Council members have been mostly mum on the issue, with one exception. In a Sept. 7 tweet on her official Twitter account, Council Member Delia Garza practically had pom-poms in her hands, posting: “WE WILL WE WILL Court you *clap clap* Court you *clap clap* ATX D2 has ABIA, major thoroughfares, and Austinites ready for good jobs.” Garza’s district in Southeast Austin has large portions of undeveloped land that’d be needed for the estimated 8 million square feet of space Amazon would need, and the location near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport certainly doesn’t hurt. But the tenor of her tweet is something of an about-face from Garza’s stance against a city incentive package to convince life sciences giant Merck Sharp & Dohme to build an IT center with 600 jobs in downtown Austin. Garza opposed that plan because the median wage of the Merck jobs is expected to be nearly $80,000 and wouldn’t bring the kind of middle-class jobs most needed in her district. Amazon, which has stated that incentive packages will be a significant consideration in naming its next HQ site, also forecast the median income for its 50,000 workers to be more than $100,000, more than double the median family incomes for much of District 2.

Traffic jam all the modes… Last week, we brought you the happy news that the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is expecting the imminent end of the seemingly eternal MoPac Improvement Project. We also noted that CTRMA Community Director of Community Relations Steve Pustelnyk told his board of directors that the projected cost of a rush hour trip along the length of the new demand-based express lanes stands at about $2. Given the sustained, citywide griping about traffic, this number struck us as perhaps a touch too low; to escape the MoPac Monster’s gnarliest congestion, who wouldn’t forgo one breakfast taco per day? Even more alarming though is the consideration that a single ride pass on the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s MetroExpress buses that will take advantage of the new toll lanes will set passengers back a cool $3.50. Putting aside the costs of vehicle ownership, fuel, insurance, maintenance, etc. (those otherwise built-in costs of American residency), the difference between the projected tolls and existing transit fares doesn’t appear to lend itself to a progressive mode shift that might perhaps increase mobility and access as well as create a more environmentally friendly region. The Monitor followed up with Pustelnyk about his statement and learned that the assumptions the CTRMA is using are based on surveys of drivers conducted six years ago. “People may tend to under report what they’re willing to pay,” he conceded. Capital Metro Vice President of Strategic Planning and Development Todd Hemingson said of the CTRMA’s planning, “We talk with them fairly regularly but in terms of having detailed discussions about fare/toll policy and the relation between the two, that’s been fairly limited.” We’ll buy that for a dollar.

Clarification: Following publication, Garza reached out to the Monitor to clarify her positions. “I didn’t support the Merck deal because the entry level requirements were at least a college degree. I am interested in the Amazon deal because it appears some of the jobs would require less than a college degree and those kinds of jobs could help folks in my district and throughout Austin,” she explained. “I will only support an incentive after careful consideration of many things including how this will affect our housing shortage and if the jobs can provide upward mobility for our working families. It could be a great opportunity, if it’s the right opportunity for all of Austin.”

The price of fun… About a month ago, there was much rejoicing over a plan to close down Congress Avenue from 11th Street to Mary Street for the Ciclovia Open Street event. But a recent estimate of event costs from Chief of Staff Ray Baray might be a sad dose of reality for those who hoped the event might lead to a more pedestrian-forward future for Austin’s central avenue. A memo estimating the cost of closing down the road for several weekend hours estimates the cost at $93,193 – not including Austin Fire Department costs. Read all about it here.

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notebooks of Jo Clifton, Chad Swiatecki, Caleb Pritchard and Elizabeth Pagano.

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