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Council approves $2.5 million in aid to musicians, artists impacted by Covid-19

Friday, April 24, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

A pair of actions taken Thursday by City Council will direct $2.5 million toward financial assistance for local musicians and other creatives facing substantial losses of income due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

An ordinance change passed on the consent agenda calls for $1.5 million to be withdrawn from the city’s emergency budget reserves and transferred to the Austin Music Disaster Relief Fund, which Council approved the creation of earlier this month. That money will be used to provide grants to local musicians based on eligibility criteria formulated by the Music Commission and relevant nonprofit groups.

A separate resolution also approved on consent directs city staff to use the $1 million Creative Space Assistance Fund and reconfigure it as the Austin Artist Disaster Relief Fund, which will also provide grants to hard-hit artists. CSAP was originally created to help financially vulnerable venues with rent stipends or capital improvements, but the effects of the pandemic required Economic Development Department staff to consider all options for providing financial relief to creatives who have seen steep drops in their income.

Discussion on the budget item at Tuesday’s work session focused on the decision to use emergency reserve money to fund the music aid program instead of the $3.5 million Live Music Fund, which was created last year with money from the city’s portion of hotel taxes.

Staff said the hotel tax money has stricter state guidelines on how it can be used, and that Council’s direction earlier this month to replenish any withdrawals from the Live Music Fund would limit the source of replenishment to only hotel taxes, which are expected to drop severely this year. It is also expected that much of the money the city uses for programs related to the pandemic will be reimbursed by the federal government, making emergency fund dollars more flexible.

“We had the conversation on the dais about looking to other funding sources, and staff have come back and suggested the fund be created through the general fund emergency reserves,” Council Member Kathie Tovo said. “I want to hear from my colleagues on if they would support that because my preference when talking about budgeting items is to look at our most restricted funds first.”

In an attempt to counter rumors in the community, Tovo also received assurances from Budget Department staff that the possible use of hotel tax money would not endanger the city’s plan to begin a two-phase expansion of the Austin Convention Center. That move is expected to cost more than $1 billion over the next 20 years.

Mayor Steve Adler said the city’s musicians are some of the hardest-hit residents in the aftermath of the cancellation last month of South by Southwest, which draws tens of thousands of visitors to the city annually. He also said the city needs to honor the intent of the Live Music Fund, which was created with the intention of being a self-replenishing mechanism to help enhance the business prospects of local musicians and related businesses.

“This is one of the groups that’s hardest-hit by what’s happening here, and two things to keep in mind is, this is one of the most vulnerable groups to be able to survive, but we also need to maintain the planned investment to make sure the infrastructure exists as we come out of this,” he said. “It’s critically important that the fund that was created with the 2 percent (of the hotel tax) in order to be able to help with the institutional infrastructure at the back end of this is preserved because it’s going to be critically needed.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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