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Vote moves ‘downtown puzzle’ forward, with amendments aplenty

Friday, September 29, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

City Council voted Thursday to move forward with the “downtown puzzle,” a package of possible tax increases and assessment mechanisms seen as a way to fund a variety of public works projects and other community needs.

The 10-0 vote – Council Member Ellen Troxclair was absent – directs city staff to begin gathering information on the legal requirements and procedural steps needed to start enacting policy related to the various pieces of the puzzle.

The biggest of those is a proposed 2 percentage-point increase to the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax, much of which would be used to pay for an expansion of the Austin Convention Center that is expected to cost around $600 million.

Overflow funds from that tax, an extra 1 percent tax hotels would impose on themselves and a reworking of the taxing mechanism currently funding the Waller Creek Tunnel project could possibly make hundreds of millions of dollars available to fund homeless housing and services, historic building preservation, local music and an expansion of the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center.

The far-reaching resolution, first conceived by Mayor Steve Adler this summer, went through a series of amendments and revisions over more than an hour of discussion between Council members. The most significant changes came from Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who spelled out more details related to individual puzzle pieces, and Council Member Ora Houston, who added language that protects East Austin residential neighborhoods from downtown expansion related to the puzzle and directs Council to explore ways to use some of the funds for projects in other parts of Travis County.

Tovo also included a Dec. 15 deadline for staff to produce the requested information, though she said that date was mostly a placeholder to provide some kind of a deadline, with the expectation that certain pieces of the puzzle will require far more time to research. City staff said its biggest priority is research into possibly extending and expanding the Waller Creek Tax Increment Financing Reinvestment Zone because that issue has been under consideration for nearly a year.

Adler stressed throughout the meeting that the resolution was only a directive for staff to explore and do research, and didn’t commit the city to enacting any of the possible ambitious projects.

After the vote, he said the possible expansion of the convention center and its connection to a series of other projects had “made it into a bogeyman” for Council members who are still undecided on whether the expansion is needed. He said after staff gathers information in the coming weeks he expects the rest of the Council members will be more comfortable in deciding their support for the various policy questions.

“What we passed didn’t change very much, and the original resolution asks staff to go and find out what it would look like if we do this,” he said. “Council members wanted to pull that apart into the various component pieces, to make sure that all of their concerns were addressed. I had no problems pulling the resolution into its component parts.”

Prior to voting in favor of the measure, Houston said city staff and Council will need to be diligent in communicating findings and recommendations on the various puzzle pieces to the public to avoid confusion over how the various efforts affect each other. Earlier in the meeting Houston and Council Member Delia Garza moved to postpone the resolution to allow more fact-finding, but that motion failed 2-8.

“You all have done a wonderful job listening to the concerns we’ve had with various parts of this puzzle over the last weeks and days,” Houston said. “There’s still a lot of questions that people have about the pieces of the puzzle. People have suggested we break up the pieces of the puzzle and vote on that.”

This story has been changed since publication to correct a typo. Photo by Earl McGehee made available through a Creative Commons license.

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