Two city council members say they’d like to see the city use hotel occupancy tax (HOT) funds to build a new civic or convention center.
Mayor Bruno “Ralphy” Lozano and Councilwoman Diana Bejarano Salgado said they want the city begin planning for the construction of a new civic or convention center. The two council members made their comments during the council’s most recent meeting on Oct. 3.
Salgado said it was her understanding a large percentage – 37.5 percent – of the hotel occupancy tax money collected by the city must be used exclusively for convention center facilities, adding she wanted to see that amount incorporated in this year’s HOT funds budget.
“When you have a building that rains on quinceañeras and weddings and there’s water all over the place, it’s an embarrassment, and we’ve talked about this. So I want to make sure that goes on there,” Salgado said.
She also asked if the city is “following the funding for authorized purposes as they appear on our charter or ordinances, because I see things here that don’t match with what we’ve been doing.”
“The main point is to use the funds on promoting tourism and eventually, heads in beds, and these agencies (that receive city HOT funds) are asked to comply with that as far as whatever expenses they’re accounting for, so that’s a mechanism that we check,” Assistant City Manager Manuel Chavez said.
Salgado reiterated the city ordinances specify how HOT funds can be spent and that spending on a new civic center “should be a priority.”
“I’m going to have to agree with the councilwoman at this point,” Mayor Bruno “Ralphy” Lozano interjected.
Lozano said he recently stopped at the visitors center in San Angelo and called it “an amazing facility.”
“Then I go to Eagle Pass and visit their new civic center, trade center, and it’s an amazing facility, and as challenging as it is to even have to say this, we need to be reserved in our spending or in our allocations for our HOT fund recipients so we can altogether as a city better ourselves, because the civic center as it stands, with the fact that we can’t even use it at its capacity, because of the leaks, it’s a disservice to our entire population here,” the mayor said.
“I have to ask myself, and I have to ask council to take a deep hard look at the fact to ensure that we have a plan of action to repair the civic center or get a new civic center that can facilitate the current needs of our population,” Lozano said, adding the city currently does not have a location to compete with facilities in other cities like “Eagle Pass, Fredericksburg, Kerrville; all these other cities that are currently hosting conventions.”
“Our citizens deserve that, and we cannot continue to do the same thing and expect new results. We have to take a look and ensure that this council is completely aware of the possible future that we can begin now with the allocation of these funds to pay for a new convention center,” Lozano added.
Chavez again told the council, “The only amount that needs to be allocated is the one-seventh (for tourism). Anything else (is) whatever the council wishes to use it on.”
Salgado then read out certain percentages she said it was her understanding needed to be allocated to certain functions, including “42.5 percent for the tourism and then you have 11 percent exclusively for the promoting the arts, 8 percent for engaging historical preservation, 1 percent for the promoting Laughlin Heritage Foundation.”
Councilman Jim De Reus asked if the council’s original ordinance to allocate hotel occupancy tax funds had ever changed. He asked City Attorney Suzanne West, “Have the previous times since this original ordinance was passed, that we’ve allocated funds, does that override these numbers?”
“It does. We’ve allocated (HOT funds) every year by ordinance,” West said.
“So because it’s by ordinance, we aren’t bound by those numbers?” De Reus said.
“Right. You’re bound by them unless there’s a superseding ordinance, so because you’ve superseded it, it doesn’t apply” West replied.
“So we don’t have to do 37.5 percent, because that would be $280,000,” De Reus said.
“No, you’re not stuck to that. If this gets approved by ordinance, it would supersede,” West said.
“Well, what I’d like to do is table this item, because what I’d like to see is a good chunk of money being set aside for a new civic center. I don’t want to see it have to come out of our taxpayers, out of our general fund. There’s no reason why it cannot come out of the HOT funds,” Salgado said.
Chavez said whatever the council decided for next year’s HOT fund allocations would be put into an ordinance and brought back to the council.
Later in the discussion, Leno Hernandez, civic facilities manager and HOT funds committee vice chair, told the council when communities want to build a new civic or convention center, they “typically” add 2 percent to their existing hotel occupancy tax.
He cautioned, however, now that Val Verde County is also collecting hotel occupancy tax, “we are at a pretty high level of hotel tax occupancy tax.”
“If we did request that bond, we’d have to request it through the state and they would have to approve it, and they probably wouldn’t because we’d be at a level similar to (hotels) in Dallas in hotel tax,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez also told the council the city “has addressed a lot of these problems” at the civic center.
“There are no leaks during weddings anymore. The area where we are still repairing is the Kennedy Room, but that is the only room where we have any concern. The rest of the facility is fine,” he said.
The council tabled further consideration of the HOT funds issue until a future meeting.