City Manager’s Scheme To Shirk Funding Auditorium Shores

City Hall is eagerly embracing the notion that $3.5 million of funding from C3 Productions will take care of renovating the Auditorium Shores portion of Town Lake Park.  Council is letting C3 take them off the hook for having failed on the Town Lake Park Venue Project, for which voters authorized car rental tax funding to create a centerpiece park between Barton Springs Road and the lake alongside Auditorium Shores.  Taxpayers have already paid for the completion of the park, yet the park is not even half finished. The reason: Council allowed the City Manager to illegally redirect the venue tax revenues from park construction to Convention Center Department operations and maintenance.  Never authorized by voters and never discussed publicly in the hundreds of hours of public meetings over the project, the redirection of funding has been thoroughly documented in Whatever Happened To Town Lake Park.

When the issue was brought to light in the media in 2009, then-Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza quickly pledged $5 of funding to supposedly finish the park (though the City is around $20 million short of the park development funding promised in the Council-adopted 1999 financial plan for the venue project.)  Yet virtually none of that pledge has been spent on the park, and in the meantime the acceleration of construction costs has greatly eroded the purchasing power it would have had brought if the City had been sincere about proceeding.  Nor was the $7 million quickly authorized by the City’s Financial Director in 2007 when the fiscal misdeeds were brought to Council by concerned citizens.  (The Convention Center Department spent that $7M almost as fast as it appeared.)

From the very beginning, the venue project was understood to include Auditorium Shores.  The Council-adopted Master Plan for the venue project includes two phases of the venue project plan consisted of revitalizing western and eastern Auditorium Shores as part of the great new park.  Assistant City Manager Jim Smith’s 1999 financial plan for the project, also adopted by Council, made the commitment to fund these phases from car rental tax revenues fully explicit.  $11.1 million (in 1999 dollars) was committed to latter phases of the park project, to be spent by 2007 primarily on Auditorium Shores.  None of that ever happened.

A recent letter signed by many of the original principals in the venue project reaffirms that the venue’s car rental tax revenue was to be used to fund the complete remaking of Auditorium Shores under a Master Plan and financial plan adopted by Council, and that at no time in the intensely participatory early years of the project was there ever a public word suggesting otherwise or that the car rental tax would fund Convention Center operations and maintenance.  The assumption throughout the formative years of the project was that the bed tax would be used as it had been historically to underwrite Palmer Auditorium.  But as Auditorium Shores has continued to deteriorate into its current sorry condition, a galling scheme concocted by the City Manager is preventing any of the venue funding to be spent on Auditorium Shores.

While with one hand Rudy Garza was attempting to quell controversy with his very public (though insufficient) $5 million offer, with the other hand he was insisting without any precedent whatsoever that the venue project did not include Auditorium Shores, and therefore no venue funding could be used there.   Garza’s revisionist position is laid out in a series of memos to the Mayor in 2011, when Council was intending to formally confirm that the boundaries of the project included all of Auditorium Shores.  He characterized this Council affirmation of the foundations of the project as “expanding the venue boundaries”.  Then he went on to insist that the venue project extended only as far north as the alignment of Riverside Drive and as far west as the former alignment of Dawson Drive, both notions being complete fabrications with no foundation in historical fact.  He recruited the Law Department to this position, in a move underscoring the fundamental conflict of interest in having the Law Department under the direction of the City Manager rather than the City Council.

The fact is, Garza’s position neglected the widespread public understanding and the explicit earlier City Management and Council commitments to spending venue funds there.  It also implied a direct violation of state law by the City.  The Texas Municipal Code specifies that revenues dedicated to a venue project may only be spent within the physical boundaries of the venue project.  Garza ignored 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 as well as Butler Park.  Furthermore, significant venue funds had been expended in the construction of the western portion of Butler Park, which lay outside his fabricated boundary.  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 itself.  Better for the City to violate the law, defy the public, and forget about its signature park than to concede the car rental tax could be used as intended rather than as slush funding for Convention Center operations.

Bob Hodge, the originator of the back room scam by which venue funding was directed to Convention Center operations, has moved on, under threat of indictment over actions related to the performance reviews used to justify the payment of personal bonuses from venue-generated funds.  Garza has moved on, too, his transition to private contractor under cloud of ethical complaints related to fiscal decisions he made on his way out the door and issues related to his transition to the private sector.

But City Manager Marc Ott has bought fully into Garza’s lies about the venue project.  Ott has suppressed a staff report supporting the case that Auditorium Shores is part of the venue project and thus eligible for its funding, neither allowing its release under Open Records request nor even admitting its existence.  He has adopted the notion that funding designated by public ballot for “development” means “operations”, an interpretation of the English language unique to this project.  He did not originate the lies, but now he owns them.

City Council is just as culpable.  Despite repeated pressure to do so, 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.  The boundary issue and the funding misdirections have been presented to every City Council office repeatedly and in detail since 2003.  They well know the wrongs that have been committed in the City’s venue project, but never have they had the spine to stand up to the City Manager to correct them.

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.

Larry Akers — Stakeholder Representative, Town Lake Park Community Events Center Venue Project

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