Grumet: Feeling frustrated with the media? Switch off cable TV and turn to local news

Today the American-Statesman’s editorial board joined hundreds of newspapers around the country in standing up for the importance of a free press, particularly as President Donald Trump continues his dangerous rhetoric against journalists. While Trump’s cries of “fake news” ring hollow against the well-sourced reporting about his administration, however, there’s no denying the media sometimes suffers from a troubling credibility gap with the public.

A Gallup poll last year found just over a third of Americans (37 percent) believe news organizations “get the facts straight.” That’s a depressingly low metric for people in my industry, and one I think grossly underestimates the painstaking work journalists do everyday. Yes, reporters sometimes make mistakes. But most traditional news organizations strive to correct the record quickly and with transparency.

Part of the problem, of course, is the catchall nature of “the media,” a term that includes everything from local newspapers to the New York Times and the Washington Post, local television affiliates and 24-hour cable news, online news outlets and blogs, not to mention the hodgepodge of information showing up in people’s Facebook feeds.

I reached out this week to Kathleen McElroy, the new director of the journalism school at the University of Texas, and she suspects much of the consternation revolves around 24-hour cable news, which offers a mix of news and political commentary, largely around hot-button national issues. Her advice to people growing disillusioned with media coverage? Turn your focus to local news coverage.

“Very little of what’s newsy is what’s happening on cable,” said McElroy, who worked at the Statesman in the late 1980s and later became an editor at the New York Times. “How much of what you’re consuming is national politics? If you’re consuming only national politics, maybe it’s time to think about your school board, your city council, your planning board, what’s going on in the churches in your area.”

Indeed, many of the issues most likely to affect your everyday life — your commute, the conditions at your kid’s school, what you’re paying in taxes and getting in services, even this new-fangled Major League Soccer stadium you might have heard about — are local topics covered by your friendly neighborhood newspaper.

“People cannot go to a 12-hour City Council meeting in Austin,” McElroy told me. “They can try to read CodeNext on their own, when that was still viable, but good luck on that. How much information do you need from neutral, professional sources? I think it’s a lot more than people think. Whether it’s a restaurant review or reading about the classification ratings that are coming out in schools or about the (California) wildfires, that’s information that goes beyond what’s going on in Washington.”

While we’re talking about neutral, professional sources, please bookmark PolitiFact.com/Texas, the truth-squading project spearheaded by the Austin American-Statesman, in collaboration with the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. Their rigorous work seeks to verify or debunk various statements made by local and state officials, and they post links to all their backup materials so you can check the math yourself. They’re even tracking how Gov. Greg Abbott and Austin Mayor Steve Adler are faring on their campaign promises.

You can also see how the Austin City Council has voted on dozens of issues, including the ones you’re most interested in, at the Statesman’s wonderful VoteTracker project. The database goes all the way back to the start of the 10-1 council in January 2015. Spend some time with it to see what your district rep has been up to. It’s worth knowing before heading to the polls this fall.

Please support the work of the Statesman and other local news outlets that work tirelessly to cover Austin news. We all have a stake in keeping this community strong.

 

 

 

 

Grumet: Goodnight CodeNext (with apologies to Goodnight Moon)

In the great map room

There was a consultant

And a neighborhood vexed

And a picture of

The transect zones from CodeNext

And there were 11 council members

In yellow vests and hard hats

And a planning commission

At odds with the ZAP

And three drafts of a code

That made people holler

And piles of invoices

For eight million dollars

And a petition drive for an election fight

And a frustrated mayor who turned off the light.

Goodnight CodeNext.

Goodnight residents vexed.

Goodnight transect zones we had to reject.

Goodnight hard hats

And the yellow vests

Goodnight meetings

Goodnight protests

Goodnight codes

Goodnight roads

Goodnight maps

Goodnight ZAP

Goodnight density cries

And goodnight preservation sighs

Goodnight complaints

And the petition drives

Goodnight nobody

Who wants CodeNext revived

And goodnight to the mayor keeping his reelection alive.

Goodnight affordability.

Goodnight to all that’s fair.

Goodnight to growth problems everywhere.

Fire in San Marcos apartments offers lessons for homeowners

Emergency personnel continue search and recovery efforts at the Iconic Village apartments, where a fire broke out early Friday, in San Marcos, Texas, on July 20, 2018.
LYNDA M. GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

In researching an editorial about the fire that tore through two apartment complexes in San Marcos recently, I spoke to safety experts who scared me straight about fire safety – and not just in multifamily residences and college dorms, but in my own home.

With busy lifestyles, fire safety typically isn’t high on our radars. It should be. Protecting one’s home requires more than installing a few fire alarms. Along with alarms, homeowners should have other devices on hand, such as fire extinguishers and fire escape ladders. Also, homeowners should have an exit plan.

“People underestimate how fast and how hot fires grow,” said Jeffrey Shapiro, a fire engineering consultant who lives in Austin.”

“Then you see something like this.”

Shapiro was referring to the fire that broke out at the Iconic Village and Village Pads apartments in San Marcos on July 20.

READ EDITORIAL: San Marcos fire raises questions about safety of renters

Five people were killed in the blaze that spread through three buildings in the complex. To escape the fire, some residents said they jumped out apartment windows. Survivors said they didn’t hear fire alarms go off. Instead they said they got notice their building was burning from others who knocked on their doors at 4:30 a.m.

San Marcos authorities are investigating the cause of the fire and whether smoke alarms in apartments malfunctioned.

Automatic sprinkler systems are the most effective protection against fires in apartments because they limit the spread of fire until firefighters arrive. Sprinkler systems save lives, studies show. But those apartments were built in 1970 before sprinkler systems were required for multifamily residences. State law requires that all multifamily residences have fire alarms. Tenants are responsible for replacing the batteries.

Certainly, I have installed fire alarms in my home that detect smoke, the ones that use nine-volt batteries. What I didn’t know was that those fire alarms should be put in every bedroom – if not every room – along with installing one in the kitchen. And there are better models on the market that don’t require regular replacement of batteries.

“Fire alarms activate only where smoke is,” Shapiro said, adding that if the alarm is in the kitchen and a person is asleep in the bedroom when a fire erupts, then he or she “might not get an early warning.”

Aside from placing them in each room of the house, homeowners should consider upgrading to tamper-resistant fire alarms powered by lithium batteries that last for 10 years. The sealed versions can’t be easily opened without breaking the units, said Andy Teas, vice president for public affairs for the Houston apartment Association. At less than $30 each, they are affordable.

Another option are wireless smoke alarms that create an interconnected system so that when one alarm is triggered, all alarms in the home sound off.

RELATED: Ex-residents at San Marcos apartments recall faulty smoke detectors

Fire extinguishers especially crafted for home use also are a good investment, Teas said, because they can suppress a fire if used timely until firefighters arrive. Placing extinguishers in a kitchen and a bedroom makes sense because kitchens are where grease fires break out. But be careful not to place too close to an over or stove. An extinguisher used effectively can put out a small fire or buy time to escape. They range in price from about $20 to $80.

Shapiro mentioned something I had not heard of, a fire escape ladder, for people who live in two-story homes. They are portable, roll-up ladders that mount to walls or windows and can be a way out when doorways are blocked by fire. They should be kept in bedrooms near windows, he said. I found them online, ranging from $25 to $160.

Think ahead so you don’t get trapped in your home if a fire breaks out, Shapiro and Teas said. That means knowing different ways to exit a home. It might mean going out a window if there is no way to make it to the first floor, or out a back door, or even off a roof.

“We’ve gotten used to not having fires, so we are not thinking about fire safety in our homes,” said David Mintz, vice president of government affairs for the Texas Apartment Association. “We’ve got to be thinking about these things.”

He is right. Fire safety in our homes must be a priority.

Community event offers free wellness knowledge, and BBQ, too

 

As a longtime church music minister and funeral director in East Austin and Manor, Barry J.W. Franklin has stood at the intersection of some of the most vexing challenges confronting African Americans: Health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease, and financial illiteracy.

Those challenges, he says, have diminished the quality of life for so many people he regularly interacts with in church pews and funeral homes – folks who have lost their inheritance, homes and health, essentially because they lacked the knowledge and savvy to address those issues timely.

On Saturday, Franklin is doing something about it by bringing experts, ranging from doctors and nurses to financial planners and insurance professionals to East Austin’s Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex — which by the way, should be renamed for the late Eric Mitchell, who as a council member in the 1990s secured the federal HUD dollars to build it.

READ: Fiery one-term council member was part of pro-business minority, rattled status quo

That’s a story for another column. Back to Saturday’s event, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., at the entertainment complex, 1156 Hargrave St.

Thanks to a host of volunteers and Franklin, who is paying for the venue, barbecue and fixings, the event is free. All are welcome.

“African Americans need to be educated on important issues while they are living so they can improve their health, survive old-age with dignity and hold on to their homes and inheritance,” Franklin said, explaining why he is hosting what he calls “A Community Celebration of Health and Wealth.”

Franklin says the event will feature information and screenings regarding diabetes, heart disease, high and low blood pressure and cancer – several of the chronic illnesses that disproportionately afflict black Americans.

The good news for African Americans is that their death rate has decreased by 25 percent from 1999 to 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bad news is that African Americans, ages 18-49, are two times as likely to die from heart disease than whites; and they are 50 percent more likely to have high blood pressure than whites, according to the CDC.

RELATED: African American health

Another overlooked health issue is oral care for children and adults. Franklin’s got that covered with dentists and other specialists who will be on hand to provide information about that. He wants to increase awareness of oral cancer and gum disease.

Franklin says he didn’t limit the health and wellness fair to health issues because finances also play an important role in a person’s quality of life.

“I’ve seen many people pass away and leave their estates to family members and others who aren’t equipped to handle those assets, back taxes and related matters,” Franklin said. “That lack of knowledge has contributed to people losing their homes in East Austin and putting folks in debt.”

Aside from financial and estate planning, experts will be on hand to discuss wills, trusts, reverse mortgages, social security and veteran benefits and various kinds of insurance.

Among those supporting Franklin’s event is the Rev. Henrietta Sullivan Mkwanazi, co-pastor for historic Metropolitan AME Church in East Austin.

“Even those of us with college degrees have a hard time distinguishing between whole life insurance and term life insurance,” she said. “This is three packed hours of knowledge on that and many other topics.”

Mkwanazi continued: “There is an old saying that ‘knowledge is power’ and people suffering from a lack of knowledge don’t know how to tap into the things that need to be done to improve their health and welfare.”

On Saturday, the public can tap in to what Mkwanazi called “free knowledge” at the community celebration.

Grumet: Don’t disparage the ‘Anti-$100 Bill Coalition’ in soccer debate

I know it’s a popular sport to joke about the passionate level of civic engagement at Austin City Hall, especially when ideas get bandied between advisory groups for months on end and City Council meetings run till 3 a.m.

But we should cheer for the smart, inquisitive people who make the time to attend public meetings, read up on various proposals and ask tough questions, especially when taxpayer dollars are on the line. They make our city better.

I was disappointed Thursday evening when Precourt Sports Ventures lobbyist Richard Suttle, speaking to a roomful of people at the Central Library about the possibility of bringing a Major League Soccer franchise to Austin, drew an unfortunate analogy to the city’s reputation for civic engagement.

“Overwhelmingly this is a popular deal,” Suttle said of the MLS proposal, still being negotiated, in which Precourt would pay $1 a year to use city-owned land for a stadium but wouldn’t pay any property taxes on the venue. The franchise promises to provide other perks and regional economic benefits.

“Now, there are some folks that have questions,” Suttle continued. “And in Austin, I tell the story that if we decide we’re going to give out $100 bills on Congress Avenue on Saturday for free, no strings attached, the Anti-$100 Bill Coalition will be formed by tomorrow, and we’ll have discussions on what that would look like.”

Editorial: Negotiate MLS stadium deal on Austin’s terms, not Precourt’s

Some folks in the crowd chuckled. A few people booed. One woman yelled out, “That’s very unfair.” I shared her sentiment.

I’d love to see Austin have its own MLS team, and I see the tremendous potential for it to bring different parts of the city together. But residents are right to ask serious questions about the financial cost to the city, the impact of traffic and parking on the neighbors, and the tradeoffs other cities have experienced when a pro sports team comes to town. 

These residents shouldn’t be likened to naysayers who can’t even see the good when it’s raining Benjamins.

Suttle told the crowd, and later emphasized to me, that wasn’t his intention.

“All I mean by that is that we have a robust city where we like to talk about stuff, and that’s a healthy thing, because we always end up with a better solution when we have everybody in the room, everybody talking,” he told the crowd.

He told me the “Anti-$100 Bill Coalition” was “meant to be the most absurd example” of community feedback, not a commentary on the soccer stadium critics.

Commentary: MLS stadium deal should score points for the community

In fact, Suttle said he left the meeting with a to-do list based on the concerns residents raised Thursday evening.

“I heard loud and clear that the neighbors that live within a mile of the place, a mile east on Braker (Lane), are concerned about people parking in their neighborhood and walking to the stadium,” Suttle told me. “What that means is I’ve got to go find the model on how they solved that in the neighborhoods near Zilker Park for ACL.” Additionally, Suttle said he recognizes Precourt needs to provide a specific plan for parking. The current site plan has only 1,000 parking spaces for a stadium that will seat 20,000.

He also took note of concerns one resident raised about drainage and water quality, as the McKalla tract is near the headwaters of Little Walnut Creek. One speaker wanted to see more details on the perks for youth soccer; another wanted to see Tejano music incorporated into events at the site; another suggested the deal include a clear cap on the city’s financial contributions to the venture. All duly noted, Suttle said.

The most recurring criticism I heard Thursday evening, though, is that Precourt wouldn’t pay property taxes on the stadium, which would be built by the franchise and then given to the city. One estimate puts the unpaid property taxes at $5 million in the stadium’s first year, including roughly $2.7 million for Austin schools, $1 million for the city of Austin, nearly $850,000 for Travis County, almost $250,000 for Central Health and about $230,000 for Austin Community College. 

Kind of the opposite of handing out free $100 bills to the public.

Precourt is still negotiating other financial terms with the city, with the goal of bringing a proposed deal to the City Council Aug. 9.

But a word of advice: Listen to your critics. Use their concerns to make your proposal better for Austin. And leave the absurd analogies at home.

Grumet: Did Austinites really buy into the city’s plastic bag ban?

While H-E-B and other retailers consider whether to bring back disposable plastic bags, I’ve heard some interesting discussions about how much Austinites actually supported the city’s recently nullified plastic bag ban.

That’s because plastic bags didn’t entirely go away. Remember, Austin’s ordinance only barred stores from providing those wispy, single-use plastic bags, but H-E-B lawfully provides thicker, reusable plastic bags for sale. Did residents simply replace one kind of plastic bag with another, and send the same amount of plastic into the trash?

Let’s look at the numbers.

Our recent editorial noted the bag ban led to Austinites using nearly 200 million fewer disposable plastic bags a year. But that same editorial also pointed out the weight of single-use plastic bags kept out of the landfill was nearly offset by the 23 tons of the thicker, reusable plastic bags arriving each year at the city’s recycling centers. Those centers aren’t equipped to recycle plastic bags, so those bags end up going to the landfill.

A reader suggested these numbers mean Austinites didn’t strongly support the city’s bag ban, which the City Council approved in 2012 and the Texas Supreme Court struck down last month. When the free disposable bags went away, the logic goes, customers simply paid for the heavier, reusable plastic bags and then threw them away, too.

I don’t think that’s the story those numbers tell, though.

Consider the old brain-teaser about which weighs more: A ton of feathers or a ton of bricks? The answer, of course, is they weigh the same. A ton is a ton. It just takes more truckloads of feathers than bricks to hit the one-ton mark.

That’s also the case with plastic bags: Specifically, you get about seven times as many disposable plastic bags per ton as you would thicker, reusable plastic bags, according to the weights of both bags provided in this 2015 report for the city.

That report even included a helpful photo from H-E-B showing, on left, a box containing 100 reusable cloth bags; in middle, a box containing 250 of the thicker, reusable plastic bags; and on right, a box containing 2,000 disposable plastic bags.

HEB bags
This photo provides an at-a-glance comparison of a box containing 100 reusable cloth bags (left); a box containing 250 of the thicker, reusable plastic bags (middle); and a box containing 2,000 disposable plastic bags (right). H-E-B provided this image for a 2015 Austin report on the city’s plastic bag ban.

Let’s be clear: 23 tons of plastics headed to the landfill is a bad thing, whether it’s composed of thicker, reusable bags, or seven times as many disposable plastic bags. But in terms of measuring Austinites’ compliance with the spirit of the bag ban, the number of bags matters. Considering the weight of discarded bags remained about the same, it seems only a fraction of Austinites were throwing out the heavier, reusable plastic bags, compared to the number of residents who used to toss disposable plastic bags.

In other words, many Austin residents made the switch to reusable cloth bags, or used the heavier, reusable plastic bags repeatedly, as intended.

I should also tell you: None of these plastic bags have to go in the trash.

True, you can’t recycle them in the blue recycling bin that you roll out to your curb. But H-E-B and Randall’s have recycling bins near their store entrances where customers can drop off plastic bags and other kinds of plastic film, such as bubble wrap and the plastic wrapping that comes around paper towels.

Last year H-E-B recycled about 1,000 tons of plastics statewide from those bins, spokeswoman Leslie Sweet told me. She didn’t have a breakdown for the Austin area or for plastic bags only. But rest assured that number includes some of those heavier, reusable plastic bags, which in fact bear markings on the bottom proclaiming they are “recyclable.”

HEB_reusablebag
The thicker, reusable plastic bags sold by H-E-B are labeled as recyclable – but you can’t put them in Austin’s blue recycling bins.

Why doesn’t the city recycle them?

Blame the machinery. The items placed in residents’ curbside blue bins go to recycling processing centers where machines separate paper from metal and glass bottles from plastic ones. Any kind of soft plastic material, such as plastic bags or bubble wrap, gums up the gears, a city spokeswoman told me.

But the city does accept plastic bags and film for recycling if you drop it off at the Recycle & Reuse Drop-off Center in Southeast Austin.

Sorry, city employees. Your second job is our business.

I hate to say it, but if you’re a stickler for privacy, a government job isn’t for you.

For starters, your salary is a matter of public record. In fact, most people could find it with just a few keystrokes if you’re among the hundreds of thousands of public employees in the Texas Tribune’s Government Salaries Explorer.

Your annual performance reviews? Public record.

Your emails and text messages, even from your personal email account and personal cell phone? Also public records, if the communication pertains to work.

And that embarrassing reprimand for filing work orders with fake names like “Dick Hertz” and “Ima Dumas” is not only a public record, but it’s likely to earn you some media attention.

Point is, when you work in the public sector, you work for the public. Whether you’re fielding complaints about soaring water bills or scrutinizing rezoning applications, you’re handling matters of public interest. We have a right to see what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

Above all, we expect your actions serve the public good, not a personal agenda.

So I was disappointed to learn the city employees’ union is pushing against a long-overdue effort to require Austin employees to disclose their second jobs. The city’s human resources director originally promised such a policy last fall, but opposition from the local AFSCME has stymied the effort.

ALSO READ: Late-night council meetings hurt the cause of open government

“As long as employees who work for the city of Austin show up for work on time and are doing their job, we feel like what they do on their off hours is their business,” Carol Guthrie, the local AFSCME ’s business manager, recently told Statesman reporter Elizabeth Findell. “Many employees have to have two, sometimes three, jobs to make ends meet. They’re proud people who don’t want people to know they subsidize their family that way.”

OK, first of all, there’s no shame in picking up extra work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates one in 20 workers has a second job, with dual-earners evenly dispersed among age groups and over-represented among college grads. Findell’s previous reporting shows some city workers are making extra bucks as pilates instructors, barbers, H-E-B baggers, ride-hailing drivers and real estate agents, among other professions.

I bet the vast majority of these second jobs pose no conflict with workers’ duties at City Hall. But the only way to know is to have full transparency. A librarian who moonlights as a Realtor probably isn’t a problem, but a Development Services worker dabbling in private real estate raises ethical issues.

These self-dealing concerns are not hypothetical. Last year an auditor’s office investigation found an Austin Energy employee responsible for approving developers’ electric service plans was also working as a consultant for some of those projects. Another investigation found an Austin Water employee approved an online marketing campaign with the same firm that gave him a free website for his side hustle in real estate.

FOLLOW US ON TWITTER: Viewpoints tweets the latest insights and analyses on politics

As Findell has reported, only a third of Austin’s 36 departments require employees to notify a supervisor about their outside employment, and not all of them keep the information in a centralized, easily accessible format for the public to see. That’s unacceptable in a city that prides itself on transparent government. It’s also out of step with other Texas cities.

Houston requires its city workers fill out a form and get the approval of their department director for any outside gig. Fort Worth has a similar form, and San Antonio, El Paso and Arlington likewise require workers to get their department head’s approval in writing before starting a second job.

Not only does this disclosure provide transparency, but it ensures there’s a conversation between worker and boss about any potential conflicts of interest.

That’s a better safeguard than Austin’s current policy, which simply prohibits employees from taking a second job that poses a conflict of interest or interferes with their city duties — and largely leaves that call up to the employee, except in specific departments that require notification. Even the proposed policy being drafted by Austin’s HR director doesn’t go far enough: Employees’ second-job disclosures would be noted in their personnel file, but there would be no centralized place for the public to look up that information, rendering this open-government gesture largely hollow.

I don’t begrudge city workers earning extra money on the side; in fact, I applaud their talents and drive. I do think a full disclosure policy, commonplace in other large Texas cities, protects employees as well as the city. It puts everything on the table, so there aren’t surprises down the line about whether an employee’s second job poses a problem.

Austin and its workers should embrace this kind of transparency, in full view of the public. When you work for the government, it’s just part of doing business.

Precourt’s MLS stadium proposal faces new, legal hurdles

Precourt Sports Ventures wants to build a Major League Soccer stadium on this city-owned tract at McKalla Place. JAY JANNER / American-Statesman

Whatever the Austin City Council decides to do in its negotiations regarding a proposal to bring Major League Soccer to Austin, it should check two boxes: Be on firm legal ground with the letter and the spirit of state law, and fairly compensate taxpayers in the way of direct benefits akin to the arrangement the city has with the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

That is why it’s a good idea for the city to immediately clear up new questions raised by Austin lawyer Bill Aleshire about whether the proposal for a professional soccer stadium on city-owned land violates state law.

It also would be wise for Precourt to sweeten the deal for taxpayers.

In a letter sent this week to City Attorney Anne Morgan, Aleshire stated that the city cannot lease, transfer or give away McKalla Place to Precourt Sports Ventures under state law unless the city receives compensation, totaling more than $18 million, or uses the land for a purpose consistent with its owner – Austin Water.

“Based on what information has been disclosed publicly, the City of Austin is on the verge of violating laws that prohibit property acquired with water utility bonds for specific use by the utility to be leased to one who would devote the premises to an inconsistent use,” Aleshire wrote in the letter to Morgan.

“McKalla Place is an Austin Water Utility asset purchased and improved with water bonds paid by Austin water utility customers. A soccer stadium is not a water utility use.”

If that is true, it throws a curve ball (excuse the baseball metaphor) into professional soccer stadium negotiations, which already are raising concerns about whether Austin is getting a fair deal, or as Council Member Ora Houston has said, “giving away the farm.”

I contacted Morgan, the city attorney, for a response.

“We did advise our council in executive session,” she told me via email. “While I cannot disclose what we advise in executive sessions, I can tell you that if council asks the city to go forward with negotiations regarding McKalla, we will explore and address the issues raised by Mr. Aleshire.”

In a unanimous decision Friday morning, the council directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to analyze Precourt’s proposal and begin stadium negotiations. In a separate action, the council passed a resolution seeking alternative proposals for McKalla Place.

At this point, few – including myself – can determine the legitimacy of Aleshire’s assertions or whether they have any merit at all. The city is in the best position to clarify those matters and should do so publicly to limit speculation that is likely to cloud or confuse matters regarding the use of McKalla Place for professional soccer or, for that matter, other purposes, such as a mixed-use development. To allow such questions to simmer without clarification is unfair to the water utility and its users, Precourt and the public.

Aleshire asserts that state law prevents the council from selling McKalla Place to Precourt without taking competitive bids. He did say, however, the council does have authority to use the land for a purpose consistent with the water utility – a stipulation he joked isn’t satisfied with a few rain water collection barrels or low-flush toilets.

Matters might end up in court, Aleshire told Morgan, unless the city sheds light on the legal questions raised by using property owned by Austin Water for sports or entertainment purposes.

Again, this is speculation, but if Aleshire’s assertions do have merit, it would seem that the city would have methods to make the water utility whole, clearing the way for soccer or other uses of McKalla.

Aleshire’s caution should not be taken lightly. He prevailed in a previous legal skirmish with the council regarding the city’s attempt to grant water utility fee waivers to the Pilot Knob housing development, getting the council’s action reversed and declared void.

READ: Pilot Knob violated state, federal law

Those new legal questions come as Austin City Council members are in talks with Precourt about its proposal to lease the 24-acre McKalla property for $1 a year. The initial terms of the agreement would cover 20 years, but with options that permit Precourt to renew under the same terms, the contract could run 80 years.

Precourt has proposed financing the construction of a $200 million stadium on the site for its Columbus Crew, SC, which it wants to relocate to from Columbus, Ohio, by year’s end. Because the property – including the stadium — would be owned by the city of Austin, Precourt wants a deal that would exempt it from paying property taxes to the city, Travis County, Central Health, Austin Community College or financially-strapped Austin Independent School District.

Some on the council have downplayed such taxpayer subsidies, arguing that the economic and social benefits Major League Soccer would yield for the city outweigh other financial considerations.

That argument ignores the fiduciary responsibility of council members to consider the highest and best use of a public asset — prior to a decision. That doesn’t mean a soccer stadium isn’t the best use, but that can’t be determined in a vacuum.

That is especially true, given city records provided by Aleshire.

Austin Water, the city’s water utility, purchased the property in 1995 for $1.4 million, city records show. That distinction requires the city to at least recoup the utility’s $18,261,323 investment over time.

So far, Precourt’s offer, while significant in benefits to Austin’s private business community and the city’s overall economy, does not provide direct or meaningful compensation to Austin Water, those who pay fees to the utility, or city taxpayers.

As the Statesman’s editorial board has said, the proposal deprives students and families in Austin district schools and ACC of badly-needed tax revenue the city likely would realize from other private developments that paid property taxes to those jurisdictions.

RELATED: Negotiate MLS stadium deal on Austin’s terms, not Precourt’s

Precourt seems to be getting the message. This week it announced it would build up to 130 units of affordable housing on the site with a parking garage. The details are sketchy, but that would be a solid benefit to taxpayers, helping Austin deal with its Austin’s affordability crisis.

If the sports franchise wants to win over critics, it should look to the city’s arrangement with the ACL Music Festival in which the private venture uses Zilker Park to stage its festival two weekends a year, though preparations and clean up limit park use for weeks before and after the festival.

The city gets a solid return from ACL: Since 2006, ACL has contributed over $26 million to the Austin Parks Foundation for improvements to parks, trails and green spaces – and in 2016 alone, it donated $6.3 million for maintenance and improvements to hundreds of city parks. ACL also pays for the yearly restoration of Zilker Park’s Great Lawn.

Major League Soccer might well be a Kumbaya enterprise for Austin; might boost the city’s cool factor. Even so, the council should put its game face on and get the best deal for Austin Water users and taxpayers.

 

 

 

Grumet: Austin should look to LA, where an MLS team pays property taxes

The new Los Angeles FC stadium opened this spring — and it plans to pay property taxes. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

I recently noted that property-tax free stadiums tend to be the norm in the professional sports world, and we know that Precourt Sports Ventures wants just such a property tax-free deal in Austin. If Austin moves forward today with negotiating a Major League Soccer stadium at McKalla Place, however, it might find some useful lessons in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles FC’s fancy new Banc of California Stadium just opened this spring on government-owned land. And it’s going to pay property taxes.

“There was never any issue about property taxes being charged or not,” Seth Burton, LAFC’s vice president of communications, told me late Wednesday via email, responding to questions I’d sent earlier. “The stadium is a private development and did not request or need property tax defrayed.”

The Los Angeles FC stadium seats about 22,000, a shave above the 20,000-seater that Precourt Sports Ventures proposes to build in Austin. It’s worth noting the LAFC stadium has other bells and whistles that brought construction costs to $350 million, well beyond Precourt’s $200 million stadium budget in Austin (I don’t have the details on the Carson, Calif. stadium that’s home to LA’s other team, the LA Galaxy). LAFC fully financed its stadium construction, just as Precourt proposes to do.

Editorial: Negotiate MLS stadium deal on Austin’s terms, not Precourt’s

Both stadiums also involve government-owned land. Burton told me the LAFC stadium sits on state-owned land that is being subleased from the University of Southern California. Precourt wants to build its stadium on the 24-acre McKalla Place tract owned by the city of Austin, which the franchise seeks to lease for $1 a year.

But here’s a key distinction: When the construction dust cleared, LAFC retained ownership of the soccer stadium it built and plans to pay property taxes on it. The first bill hasn’t come due yet, so Burton couldn’t provide a dollar amount. “The process to determine the amount of taxes is ongoing,” he said, which is not surprising, considering the challenges involved in appraising a sports venue for tax purposes.

In Austin, Precourt has proposed giving the stadium it builds to the city. This city-owned facility would remain off the tax rolls, much like the city-owned stadiums used by FC Dallas (technically based in Frisco) and the Houston Dynamo.

The property tax question is just one piece of the puzzle for Austin officials to figure out if they proceed today with Precourt. It’s possible some other combination of benefits makes better sense than putting the stadium on the tax rolls. But it’s instructive to know there’s a place where an MLS team pays property taxes without flinching.

Grumet: What would Austin soccer stadium pay if it paid property taxes?

Financially speaking, it’s the biggest unknown in the proposal for a Major League Soccer stadium site at McKalla Place: How much property tax revenue would the city forfeit if the stadium was kept off the tax rolls?

Michael J. Gaudini, a policy advisor with Council Member Leslie Pool’s office, fired up Excel and calculated some reasonable estimates that provide some scale to the debate, with some caveats I’ll explain in a minute.

We know a private appraisal in 2016 valued the land at $29.5 million, and we know Precourt Sports Ventures plans to spend $200 million building the proposed 20,000 seat stadium if the Columbus Crew SC moves here. Using those values, Gaudini estimates such a stadium would pay roughly $5 million in property taxes its first year, if the stadium and the land were both fully taxed.

That bill would include $2.7 million for Austin schools, $1 million for the city of Austin, nearly $850,000 for Travis County, almost $250,000 for Central Health and about $230,000 for Austin Community College. (Gaudini’s spreadsheet has exact dollar figures, but I’m rounding here for ease of discussion.)

Of course that’s just Year 1. Gaudini forecast three scenarios stretching into the next 25 years, rightly recognizing that forecasts become less reliable the further you reach into the future.

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Under his first scenario, assuming a 4 percent growth in property taxes each year, the total lost tax revenue over 25 years would be $211 million, including $114 million to Austin schools, $42.5 million to the city of Austin, $35 million to Travis County, $10 million to Central Health and $9.6 million to ACC.

Under his second scenario, assuming a 6 percent growth in property taxes each year, the total lost tax revenue over 25 years would be $278 million, including $150 million to Austin schools, $56 million to the city of Austin, $46 million to Travis County, $13.5 million to Central Health and $12.7 million to ACC.

Under his third scenario, assuming an 8 percent growth in property taxes each year, the total lost tax revenue over 25 years would be $371 million, including $200 million to Austin schools, $74.6 million to the city of Austin, $62 million to Travis County, $18 million to Central Health and $17 million to ACC.

The 6 percent or 8 percent scenarios are the likelier ones, if recent history is any guide.

These forecasts are built on assumptions, including the idea that tax revenues will continue on a steady upward march for the next quarter century, between fluctuations in the tax rate and growth in property values.

Editorial: Negotiate MLS stadium deal on Austin’s terms, not Precourt’s

One could also debate whether the construction cost of the stadium is the best way to value it for tax purposes. We know that hasn’t been the case at the Circuit of the Americas, which has successfully lowered its tax appraisals by arguing the Formula 1 racetrack is worth only a fraction of what it cost to build.

I asked Gaudini about this, and he acknowledged the Travis Central Appraisal District might look at other indicators to set the value, as the agency did for COTA (the appraisal district, understandably, didn’t want to speculate with me about a proposed stadium’s tax bill). But he found several indications, including this presentation by the Tampa-area tax appraisal office, that construction cost is a fair value to use.

All of this is an academic exercise: Precourt wants a property-tax free deal. That’s not uncommon: FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo play their MLS games at city-owned stadiums that don’t pay property taxes. With a few exceptions, property tax-free stadiums are baked into the financing for pro sports franchise deals.

Also missing is any sort of comparison to the taxes that other developments might pay if McKalla Place was used for housing or mixed- use projects. Council Member Jimmy Flannigan asked city staff for that very thing at Tuesday’s work session with the hope of better understanding the opportunity costs. The council is set to consider two resolutions Thursday: One launches the city’s negotiations with Precourt for a soccer stadium deal, while the other allows other developers to pitch plans for the site.

Nonprofit-owned affordable housing on city-owned land wouldn’t pay property taxes, though it would help address a critical city need. (Precourt recognizes that and has added an affordable housing component to its stadium plan). However, if a for-profit developer built a mix of apartments, shops and offices at McKalla Place, it likely would pay property taxes.

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These comparisons are beside the point for Mayor Steve Adler, however. He said there’s no doubt a mixed-use development on McKalla Place would bring more property tax revenue. But the soccer stadium, he said, would serve a larger community purpose.

“We did the (downtown) library on an incredibly valuable tract,” Adler noted. “I don’t remember an analysis being done about what we would be able to do if we put that to a mixed use development, which would have been an extraordinary value. We didn’t do that because a library was a really important thing for us to have, and now there are thousands of people a day going to the library.”

Of course there’s a difference between a city-owned library and virtually free use of city-owned land by a for-profit venture like Precourt.

But a soccer franchise would bring other community benefits. Weighing them all will be the City Council’s challenge on Thursday.