Austin Parks Groups Propose New Uses For Hotel Tax Funds

Mar 29, 2017

Austin’s hotels bring in millions of dollars in tax revenue for the city each year. For the past few months, the city has been exploring new uses for that money. As the revenue continues to grow, some local parks groups think it could be a way to fund their proposed improvement projects. 

Several groups made their cases for funding last night at a meeting of the city's Visitors Impact Task Force. The board is charged with exploring new uses for hotel tax revenue – a pot of money expected to reach $90 million this fiscal year – before a decision by the Austin City Council.

Board members heard from Kim McKnight with the Parks and Recreation Department, who argued city parks haven't historically seen much of that revenue.

“While the promotion of amenities paid for by Austin taxpayers are very much beneficial in attracting tourists, the funds from the hotel occupancy tax are rarely reinvested back into the parks system,” she said.

McKnight said this is the first fiscal year the parks department has gotten direct funding from hotel tax revenue, about $1 million. The department has developed a spending plan for that money, which includes restoration of sites like the Oakwood Cemetery and the Elisabet Ney Museum.

“The funding that we received just this year alone will definitely help us preserve, enhance and maintain our resources for generations to come,” she said.   

For the 2016-2017 fiscal year, Austin’s hotel tax revenue is expected to surpass $90 million and, outside of official city departments, several local parks advocates are looking for funding for their proposed projects and preservation efforts. 

“We have a rough estimate of about $100 million in repairs and improvements that we have a backlog of in our parks, and so we’re bringing these to you to say, 'Hey we’ve got this great need, and we’re going to share what we think is an opportunity to fund them,'” Joanna Wolaver, executive director of the Shoal Creek Conservancy, told the board.

Wolaver’s group has singled out some sites for improvement, including the Butler Hike and Bike Trail around Lady Bird Lake, and she said all of these improvements could be completed alongside another ambitious project that is on the table – a proposed expansion of the Austin Convention Center. But task force member Pam Thompson expressed some concerns about location.  

“I’m just really looking for more equity over all the city limits, and I did not hear about any improvements that would be going to the East Side,” she said.  

There are still questions about whether state law would permit all of the proposed uses. State and local regulations specifically require the funds to go toward efforts that support tourism, though historic preservation efforts fit the bill. For now, the task force is exploring potential uses. The group plans to give official recommendations to City Council by April 1.