Reflections on 2012 Bond Election, Part I — Town Lake Park

A central question in the City’s bond election is whether the public can
trust the City to deliver on what is proposed, once the taxpayers have
obligated and paid their money.

If Town Lake Park or the Waller Creek Tunnel are any indication, the
answer is no.

Here I will talk about Town Lake Park, and in a subsequent message about
Waller Creek.

In 1998 voters authorized a new tax on rental cars to fund the construction
of the Palmer Events Center (PEC), its parking garage, and a redeveloped park
from Barton Springs Road to the shores of Lady Bird Lake, between South
First Street and Lamar.  The PEC was built, though at a $6.8M cost overrun
that was funded from redirected park construction funds.  Five years behind
schedule, Butler Park was finally developed, though only partially because
City-imposed delays resulted in a loss of approximately $4 million in
added construction costs and rejected donations.  Butler is still unfinished,
its Children’s Garden south of the Liz Carpenter Fountain suspended because
the City Manager has been unwilling to release funding for its finished
design and construction.

That $4M delay was imposed because of a secret deal that was never
disclosed to the public, or even raised to the attention of City
Council members until over two years after the fact.  Staff devised
PEC bond covenants in which a spending waterfall for car rental tax
receipts allowed funding of park construction only after several PEC
operating accounts, including annual operations and maintenance, were
funded.  Voters never authorized use of the car tax for PEC
operations, and no public discussion of this use ever occurred.  The
public had long understood that the underwriting of events center
operations would come from bed tax funds, as they had for the old
Palmer Auditorium, not from the car rental tax.  This aspect of the
bond covenants was not raised for discussion by staff in presentation
to the Council, which adopted the ruse in 1999 with no hearing and no
discussion from the dias.

Not only was Butler deeply harmed, but the Auditorium Shores portion of
the project, which was to have consumed over half of the City’s original
pledge to the project, has never even started, having been removed from
the venue project’s financial plan for lack of foreseeable funding.

Meanwhile, the same year the car rental tax started flowing, the
Convention Center Department, flush with their windfall from not
having to fund PEC operations from the bed tax, had so much cash on
hand that they began passing it out to employees in what they called
a “Gainsharing Bonus Program”.  Founded as a reward for those same
performance measures that were falsified by former Convention Center
Director Bob Hodge, the program is still in place and has disbursed
over $5 million in excess revenue to employees.  No employees have
benefitted more than the scheme’s original creators, since for many
years the bonuses were proportional to base pay and therefore weighted
to top management.  Despite these sordid origins having been exposed to
Council, the program continues to grow year after year, siphoning what
voters authorized as Auditorium Shores enhancement funds to line the
pockets of Convention Center employees.  No other City department,
enterprise or otherwise, has such a bonus program.

Every time park advocates raise these issues to the highest levels at
City Hall, offers of park funding magically appear: $7 million in 2007 and
$5 million in Spring 2011.  But the City stonewalls actual progress
on the project until, when the heat is off, the money vanishes again.
PARD unaccountably delayed in 2008-09 until the Convention Center
Department spent the $7 million on its operations, in the meantime
missing the best construction climate opportunity for low-cost building
and economic stimulus since the 2002-2005 delay.  The current offering
is on high center while the City Manager tries to wiggle out of spending
any venue money on Auditorium Shores.

This last issue is particularly galling.  From the very beginning, the
venue project was understood to include Auditorium Shores.  Assistant
City Manager Jim Smith’s 1999 financial plan for the project made this
explicit.  But while with one hand his replacement Rudy Garza was
attempting to quell controversy with his very public and grossly
inadequate $5 million offer, with the other hand he was insisting
without any precedent whatsoever that the venue project did not
include Auditorium Shores or even the western portion of Butler Park.
He recruited the Law Department, which is under direction of the City
Manager, for support.  By Garza’s formulation, none of the $5 million
could be spent on Auditorium Shores, citing the state law requirement
that venue revenues can be spent only within the physical bounds of
the venue.  This neglected the widespread public understanding and the
explicit Jim Smith commitment to spending venue funds there.  It also
neglected the fact that significant venue funds had ALREADY been spent
on Auditorium Shores, both on master planning and on the construction
of a pump station on the shores that was sized to supply water to the
shores, and in the construction of the western portion of Butler Park.
If his restricted boundaries were really the case, then the City had
repeatedly violated state law by spending outside the venue, thus
calling into question the legality of the venue.

Despite repeated pressure to do so, City Council has refused to act to
establish formal boundaries for the project as the law requires, and
yet confusion over this easily resolvable issues is cited as a reason
for the project to have ground to a halt.

This boundary issue and the funding misdirections have been presented
to every City Council office repeatedly and in detail since 2003.
City Council is therefore as complicit in the derailment of our new
central park as the corrupt Convention Center Department management
who put the bait and switch funding scheme in place and the two
generations of City Management who have intransigiently resisted
resolution or any significant progress on the park development.

So should they be trusted with another dip into taxpayer pockets?

For more details and background documents, see:

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