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Petition drive to stall stadium will likely head to voters, after construction start

Friday, February 22, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The petition drive started last year in an attempt to stall or prevent the construction of a soccer stadium on city property could go before voters in November, roughly two months after construction of the 20,000-seat facility is expected to begin. City Council will ultimately set the date for the election, with late August as the cutoff for deciding to put the question before voters in November.

City Council failed to take action Thursday on a pair of resolutions to enact an ordinance that would have called for voter approval of any use of city property by a for-profit entity for entertainment or recreation purposes. The pair of resolutions were the result of a petition drive that gathered 29,000 signatures that were approved by the city earlier this month.

The decision to not take action on the resolution means voters will now decide in November if the ordinance becomes part of city law, meaning that in the future all recreational use of city property by outside entities would need to be decided at the ballot box.

During discussion on the issue, Mayor Steve Adler said the stadium question is decided since the city entered into a lease agreement with Precourt Sports Ventures in December, a move that will bring a Major League Soccer team to Austin by 2021.

As such, he said, referring to the ballot question as a “soccer stadium election” creates a false expectation.

“When we reference this election we have to do so in a way that has nothing to do with a soccer stadium, because it doesn’t,” he said. “We entered into a lease on that property, and the constitution won’t let us go back and end that lease that already exists because there’s a prohibition against retroactive laws.”

The stadium issue took up much of City Council’s attention last summer ahead of a 7-4 vote to use the city-owned parcel known as McKalla Place in North Austin as the site of the stadium. The lease agreement calls for PSV to pay $8.5 million in rent over 20 years to the city, and pay no property taxes as a result of gifting the $200 million stadium to the city.

The property tax move has been the key argument for opponents of the stadium, which includes a mix of community members near the property and activists financed in part by one of the owners of another soccer club startup scheduled to play in a stadium at the Circuit of the Americas.

“What you’ve heard is that 29,000 people want an election,” said Susan Spataro, the former Travis County auditor who has in the past worked for COTA partner Bobby Epstein. “This is the largest incentive package in Austin’s history and it’s for a private sports stadium. Included in that is they’re exempt from (property) taxes for 50 years and do not pay one dollar of taxes to any taxing entity for 50 years. No one has that, and any business here that has gone out of business would have loved that deal.”

Spataro and other proponents of the ballot question had pushed for a May election to decide the ordinance, but a combination of scheduling and state election law quirks means the election can’t take place until November, at an expected cost of $500,000 to the city.

Adler said the result of approving the ordinance could be that renewals on current agreements for facilities such as Zach Scott Theatre would have to go before voters rather than being renewed administratively or via consent agenda.

“This has to do with deciding whether we want to adopt an ordinance that says that any use of city property for recreational or sports use that involves a third party is something that ultimately has to go to voters,” he said. “I think that’s a really bad policy. At some point there’s going to be a lease renewal on Zach Scott Theatre, and I think the argument will then be made that that has to go to a public vote.”

Council Member Greg Casar said the petition has created confusion in his district, and would bring into question the fate of too many existing facilities that are providing value to the community.

“Whenever I’m asked, I’ve said that here’s some folks who own a racetrack who want to start a soccer team and there’s another guy who worked with the city to start a soccer team and the racetrack people funded a petition drive to put a law on the ballot in order to damage their soccer competitor,” he said. “But the ballot measure is so poorly worded that it probably doesn’t do anything about soccer, but what it does do is it likely requires many of our existing entertainer and recreation partners’ contracts to go to the voters or otherwise be canceled.”

This story has been corrected to fix a typo. Rendering by Precourt Sports Ventures.

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