Nobody Seems To Support Austin's Proposition A, But We Still Have To Vote On It

Oct 23, 2019

If this sounds like a one-sided story, it’s because it very well may be.

Proposition A, one of two city propositions before Austin voters, began as a way to stop the building of the new Major League Soccer stadium currently under construction in North Austin. The fight to get it on the ballot began last year with the financial backing of one soccer team owner, Bobby Epstein, hoping to stop another soccer team owner, Anthony Precourt, from moving into the city.

What it's become since then is an ordinance that no one – not even the political action committee (PAC) that started the petition to get it on the ballot in the first place – wants to pass. And if it passes, it could mean significant changes for Austin nonprofits going forward.

Shortly after the Austin City Council approved the ballot language in August, Fair Play Austin, the PAC that pushed for a referendum, folded, saying it couldn't support the proposition as written.

“In its current condition, passing Proposition A would do more harm than the good intended when we initially supported it," the announcement read. "Fair Play Austin PAC will not undertake any effort to support the passage of Proposition A."

Now, says Austin Mayor Steve Adler, we're stuck with it.

"Even the people that were supporting it initially are no longer supporting it or working for it,” Adler said. “But we can’t get it off the ballot, because once it’s put on, you can’t take it off.”

All of this stems from that wording – what you'll actually see on the ballot – which you can read for yourself below:

Shall a city ordinance be adopted that requires that a sale, lease, conveyance, mortgage, or other alienation of City-owned land for any existing or future youth, recreational, or professional sports facility or any existing or future entertainment facility be approved by a supermajority vote of council (9 of 11 members) and also be approved by the voters at an election for which the City must pay; requires that any site development permits and variances related thereto be approved by a supermajority vote of council (9 of 11 members); requires that site development permits and variances related thereto be approved by the voters at an election for which the City must pay, if the sale, lease, conveyance, mortgage, or other alienation of City-owned land for the facility has not already obtained voter approval; requires that the facility post payment and performance bonds and pay ad valorem taxes, or payments equal to the amount of ad valorem taxes; and requires that all information concerning such sale, lease, conveyance, mortgage, or other alienation shall be disclosed to the public.

That ballot language led to loads of unintended consequences – and nonprofits and youth sports groups could bear the brunt of them.

“Because it’s a poorly drafted ordinance that backs up the petition, I don’t think anyone really knows the full extent of the harm that it’s going to cause,” Adler said.

The city would not be able to lease city property for an entertainment or sports venue – at any level – without a vote of a community. 

“Which means every time we were going to lease fields to little league, there [would need] to be a popular vote to get that done,” Adler said.

The ordinance also would require leases to receive approval by a supermajority of the city council – nine of 11 members.

Passing the ordinance also comes with a financial cost for leasees and taxpayers.

Elections for lease renewals to youth sports and theater nonprofits will come at taxpayer expense. The city would have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for an election to approve golf course vendors, kids’ soccer groups or performing arts organizations.

The Long Center for the Performing Arts, which operates on city-owned land, would face steep costs under an ordinance that's being put to voters this fall.
Credit Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT

The more immediate concern for local nonprofits is the tax bill that will come due at the end of the year. 

“Those nonprofits have to pay money to the city equivalent to what would be property taxes,” Adler said. “That’s going to increase the bill for the Long Center $2.5 million a year. They don’t have $2.5 million a year.”

Organizations, like ZACH Theatre, might have a lower tax bill, but they will have to alter programming.

“If it does pass, our estimated taxes for 2019, I think is just over $87,000,” said Renelle Bedell, Associate Managing Director at ZACH. “So, that would be a significant number that would impact our budget. Expenses such as that would mean huge changes to the way we operate.”

That would impact programs in a number of ways at ZACH.

“Some of the ways it could include shows with smaller casts, shows with less technical needs, we could have to decrease the number of scholarships we’re offering to not only our (acting) students, but the schools that come here to see shows during the day," she said.

It would affect the North Austin YMCA on Rundberg Lane, as well, because it sits on city-owned land.

It also serves as a community center for an area with one of the lowest income levels in the city. The organization would be on the hook for more than $200,000 in taxes on the Rundberg site. Many of the members there already receive some financial assistance from the YMCA with programming.

Land-use agreements with Downs Field in East Austin would also require approval from the city, and voters, under Prop A.
Credit Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT

“We subsidize the operation of that facility, so if we have to pay an additional $200,000 in taxes, that’s going to significantly impact our ability to serve the children and families in that area that need us most,” said Sean Doles, vice president of the YMCA of Austin.

Additionally, the ordinance calls for what's called a performance bond. The recently approved 25-year contract at Butler Pitch and Putt would now require the vendor to pay for a bond on 25 years worth of rent.

None of that includes the amount of money, time and resources all of these nonprofits have to spend to advocate for their groups against the proposition.

Which brings us back to the Major League Soccer team that all of this was intended to stop. Two Oak Ventures have already started construction on the stadium Proposition A was intended to thwart. For now, it does not affect Precourt or his future team, the Austin FC. But team officials did say they would help pick up some slack in the fight against it.

Mayor Steve Adler and Anthony Precourt (right) at a January 2019 event announcing the Austin FC's arrival.
Credit Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT

“We don’t think Proposition A is good for Austin,” said Anthony Precourt at the stadium groundbreaking in September. “It doesn’t directly impact us. It does impact folks that we think are good citizens of Austin, so we’re against Proposition A.”

City election filings show that Austin FC’s parent company, Two Oak Ventures, contributed $50,000 to Austin Unites - a new PAC trying to stop the proposition from passing.