Friday, September 24, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

Tovo eyes historic preservation funds for undisclosed property negotiations

The grant program that uses Hotel Occupancy Tax money to help improve historic sites could be put on hold for a year so the city could use its funding to purchase historic sites.

At City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee meeting this week, Council Member Kathie Tovo said her objection earlier this year to approving $2 million for the Historic Preservation Fund came about in part because Council has directed the city manager to work at acquiring two unnamed historic sites.

Tovo’s comment was part of a broader discussion on proposed changes to the rules for selecting grant recipients in order to prioritize equity and marginalized communities.

“I had provided the direction that we as a Council not approve the Historic Preservation Fund allocations for Fiscal Year 2022 because I believed we needed to discuss them, and I still do,” Tovo said. “We did not address it in the budget which is the reason we didn’t approve those allocations. This year there are quite a few administrative costs built into Historic Preservation Fund expenditures, and we have two very important – in my opinion – acquisitions of historical structures, and I believe we need to consider changing the allocations for how we spend the Historic Preservation Fund over the next couple of years to accommodate those potential acquisitions.”

The properties in question weren’t named by Tovo or other committee members, and she didn’t respond to phone calls or texts from the Austin Monitor regarding the properties.

The Palm School downtown is the most high-profile historic property that the city has discussed acquiring in recent years. The site is owned by Travis County and has been discussed for a potential purchase or asset swap between the two entities, though the issue has been on the back burner in recent months.

Before she left the meeting, Tovo pressed city staff for assurances that no potentially funded grants have been moved forward yet, and she asked for more information about staff costs related to historic preservation.

“It looked to me like more staffing and administrative costs were now being funded through the Historic Preservation Fund than in past years, which is absolutely a conversation I wanted to have before the responsibility for funding those shifted to our really scarce preservation dollars,” she said.

Correcting historic inequities in funding 

The meeting also included a presentation from the Cultural Arts Division on the ongoing change to how contracts could be awarded, also with an emphasis on equity. Meghan Wells, the division manager, said the severe reduction in hotel tax revenue that funds those contracts would result in a painful reduction to recipients, even if the city delayed the change in criteria.

Wells said the data showing that roughly 20 percent of contracts over the past 30 years were awarded to minority groups shows the city shouldn’t delay in examining how awards are evaluated. The division has proposed three programs to allocate funding aligned with equity priorities, though the changes have drawn criticism from groups that have received a significant portion of their budget from city contracts for many years.

“We’ve heard an urge to pause this work from some stakeholders, but to correct these historic and structural disparities that have led to inequitable funding awards for decades, changes are necessary,” she said. “If not now, when? If we wait any longer to make these changes in the cultural funding programs, we are perpetuating current inequities that we helped create and it will keep out diverse applicants …. It will stop any progress the city’s trying to make toward a more inclusive creative community.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council Audit and Finance Committee: a sub-group of the Austin City Council. It's members are charged with oversight of city fiscal operations and anything that falls under the purview of the Office of the City Auditor.

Cultural Arts Division

historic preservation: Official actions of a municipality such as the City of Austin taken to preserve structures with their jurisdiction. Preservation is often accompanied by a property tax exemption.

Hotel Occupancy Tax: A tax on the rental of a room in a hotel or other rental properties (including apartments) that cost 6 percent of the cost of a room.

Palm School: Currently the home of the Travis County Health and Human Services and Veteran Services building, the Palm School opened as one of the first elementary schools in 1892, and operated as an elementary school for 84 years. It is located at Cesar Chavez and IH-35.

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