Special council meeting questions Downtown Puzzle

Crowds outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (KXAN Photo)
Crowds outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin city council has called a special meeting to discuss how millions of taxpayer dollars should be spent. The meeting comes ahead of a vote Thursday on what’s called the “Downtown Puzzle.”

Austin’s Mayor Steve Adler wants to expand the Austin Convention Center. It could cost between $400 million to $600 million, something Adler suggests could be paid for through a public/private partnership but also a 2 percent increase in the hotel occupancy tax. It would create a downtown TIF — or Tax Increment Finance zone — that could dedicate $30 million in future property taxes to pay for homes for about a quarter of Austin’s homeless.

It would expand the Waller Creek TIF that could dedicate $100 million toward area parks that could be matched by private donations. It would create a “Tourism Public Improvement District” by increasing the “bed tax.” That could dedicate $4 million to $8 million a year to homeless support programs, renovations to the Palm School, preservation of the Historic East Sixth Street and the Red River Cultural District and finishing construction on the Mexican-American Cultural Center.

To get hotels to petition the state to allow an increase in the “bed tax,” the city would expand the convention center. Under the mayor’s plan, the first two floors could be for stores and restaurants. On top of the expanded convention centers would be two towers; one for offices, the other for affordable housing.

The property taxes on the increased development could help generate income for the other projects of the mayor’s “Downtown Puzzle.”

According to the group called ECHO, whose mission is to end homelessness, if they could receive $30 million in additional funding per year they could end homelessness by 2020 by connecting some 2,600 households with housing and social services.

ECHO estimates the city spends about $55 million right now on 250 homeless people per year. That’s $222,000 per person, who they say on average receives more than one month of inpatient hospital care each year, including nearly two dozen trips to the emergency room — nearly a third of those by ambulance. Of all the city’s homeless, ECHO says nearly half report current mental health issues. More than half say they’ve experienced trauma or abuse and one in five is under the age of 18.

ECHO believes by finding a new revenue stream it will provide stability and reduce costs.

“It helps change behavior. It’s cheaper to have a clinic visit than a hospital stay. It’s cheaper to manage chronic disease than having folks cycling in and out of hospitals and emergency rooms. It’s smart to end the cycling of homeless folks in jail and stay housed and regain stability in their lives,” says Ann Howard, ECHO Executive Director.

But not all council members are on board with the plan, which is the reason for Wednesday’s special meeting at 1:30 p.m. On the city council’s public message board, council member Leslie Pool says she has a number of questions relating to the process and expected outcomes.

“This is a huge decision with far-reaching consequences; it’s important that the community at large has accurate and complete information about and sufficient time to understand what is proposed,” Pool writes.

Others say the process needs more time.

“We need to review data and financial models to make sure our good intentions are matched by thorough forecasts and accurate assumptions,” says Alison Alter, District 10.

Mayor Adler hopes to address many of the concerns and questions during Wednesday’s special work session.

“I think some of the biggest questions are to determine how much money we could raise from this not coming from taxpayers but from tourists and what that money could be used for,” Adler says.

Council is set to make a preliminary vote on the plan Thursday.

KXAN.com provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Users who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s