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Wednesday, June 20, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Draft audit recommends changes, improvements for Visit Austin

A draft summary from the Office of the City Auditor finds that the city’s convention center needs to improve its internal communication and tracking of deliverables related to its annual contract with the city of Austin.

The complete audit is expected to be finished this week in advance of Monday’s meeting of City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee, where the final document is expected to be accepted and adopted.

The two-page draft summary states Visit Austin, which received $14.9 million from the city for the 2018 budget year, is generally in compliance with the terms of its city contract that was approved in 2016. Auditors also found “Visit Austin’s financial policies do not have criteria for which expenses are charged to the City versus private funding sources.”

Recommendations include improving the reporting and performance review practices and improving some financial policies related to the use of private versus public funds for certain Visit Austin expenditures.

The audit was requested by Council Member Leslie Pool last year following a KXAN investigation into Visit Austin’s expenditures for alcohol and entertainment in Austin and on trips to other cities.

Visit Austin President and CEO Tom Noonan said the organization is waiting until the final audit is complete before making a full statement about its findings.

“Out of respect to all Council Members, and especially those that serve on the Audit and Finance Committee, we are reserving comments and feedback for our audit review until Monday,” he said via email. “We also note that the current audit of Visit Austin is still only in draft form.”

Pool, who has frequently criticized Visit Austin for resisting requests for information about its spending, said she wants better oversight and transparency from Visit Austin, which has its contract administered by the city’s Austin Convention Center.

“They lack oversight, and whenever we’ve tried to get information they’ve dug in more deeply to resist,” she said. “It’s clear now that there’s a lack of information and no comprehensive process to ensure that their deliverables are accurate.”

Pool has pushed for Visit Austin to focus more on cultural tourism that will highlight area attractions for visitors, rather than spending more resources on building conference business for the convention center. Pool is also a frequent critic of the convention center, which she said operates at a deficit and is kept afloat by funds from the city’s portion of the Hotel Occupancy Tax.

“I want us to get beyond going after large groups who come here for a conference at the convention center but then don’t get out into the Austin that we know,” she said. “Let’s talk about music and the arts and groups like the Rude Mechanicals and the (ZACH Theatre) because if we can ramp up tourist interest in those groups it really can help them.”

Last week City Council voted to create an 11-member Tourism Commission, a group whose first charges include examining Visit Austin and making a recommendation on the organization’s next budget, which will be determined in late summer.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who voted against the creation of the commission, said it’s unlikely the new volunteer committee will be able to conduct a meaningful analysis of Visit Austin’s books and practices in such a short time frame.

He also said Pool and other members of Council have unfairly targeted Visit Austin.

“I’m reserving final judgment until we have a complete and finished audit, but my experience with the convention center and Visit Austin has been one of transparency on their part,” he said. “I do have some concerns, but in some ways the Council has unfairly maligned the work of this independent agency while not demanding anything similar of any of the social services agencies that we contract with.”

This story has been corrected. The audit noted the convention center needs to improve its internal communication, not Visit Austin, as was originally reported.

Photo by Stuart Seeger made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau

Office of the City Auditor: This city department is created by the city's charter in order to establish and ensure "accountability transparency, and a culture of continuous improvement in city operations."

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