By Kathi Bliss
Chaos continued to reign in the chambers of the Lockhart City Council on Tuesday evening as the Council wrestled once again with the concepts of tourism and fairness when it comes to organizations putting “heads in beds” to collect hotel-motel tax funding.
Last week, the council ordered the five organizations who will collect the funding this year – the Lockhart Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Caldwell County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Gaslight-Baker Theatre, the Caldwell County Museum and the Southwest Museum of Clocks and Watches – to meet and bring forward a recommendation for the allocation of the funds. The request was predicated by an explosive argument last week, centered around the notion that the Lockhart Chamber of Commerce should sacrifice some of their funding, in order to increase the funding offered to the Greater Caldwell County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Although the leaders of the five organizations met last Thursday and agreed upon a recommendation, that agreement was derailed before the organizations came before the council on Tuesday.
Lockhart Chamber of Commerce President Becki Womble approached the council to present the recommendation, asking the principals from each of the other organizations to join her at the podium to present the agreed resolution. However, Greater Caldwell County Chamber of Commerce President Linda Barron opted to return to her seat, stating that she had her own statement to make.
“We’re asking that the funding be continued at the current levels for this year, because we’ve already written our fiscal year budgets with the assumption that the funding would not change,” Womble said.
In addition, she said, the five entities have agreed to continue to work together through this year to determine a different recommendation for funding allocation based upon events, rather than organizations. Also, she said, the panel requested that the council consider the funding allocations in November, rather than in February, so the organizations would know about the funding allocations prior to preparing their fiscal year budgets.
Representatives of three of the other four organizations, allowing Womble to be the spokesperson for the council-ordered panel, said they agreed with that recommendation.
When Barron took the podium, she blew a hole in that agreement.
“I feel like I let my organization down last Thursday when I entered that agreement,” she said. “I met with my board on Monday, and we have decided to request an increase from 19 percent to 25 percent this year.”
Barron said her organization is a hardworking chamber with countless hours dedicated to community service, and said they feel they should have access to the same funding as the Lockhart Chamber of Commerce, despite being the smaller of the two chambers.
“We had a vote last week to have the entities come to an agreement, and they came to an agreement,” Mayor Lew White responded. “And now we’re back at square one.”
Councilmember Angie Gonzales-Sanchez launched into a lengthy prepared speech expressing support for each of the five organizations, but reminding her colleagues that the argument over the allocation of the hotel-motel tax funding is and ongoing battle, which will continue to be a battle in the future.
She closed with asking the council to consider pulling the funding from all of the organizations, instead putting it into a fund to be used toward the construction of a civic center.
“[Other cities] have taken this action, and it hurt the entities at the beginning, but in the end, it was a good thing for the community,” she said. “There’s never a good time, but I’m talking about working on common ground, about being fair and equal, and this is a discussion that we’re going to keep having.”
Councilmember Benny Hillburn said he understood Gonzales-Sanchez’s point, and while he would not voice agreement or disagreement, he suggested the council should stand by the recommendation of the panel, and keep the funding as it stands, for at least one more year.
Mayor Pro Tem John Castillo, pushing for a break in the discussion, made a motion that the funding be changed.
”When I made the decision last week to look at the numbers, it was based on what everyone was doing, and I was curious how we got to the numbers,” he said. “I was trying to make things fair for the citizens of this community, because everyone’s work is equally valuable.”
He moved to change the funding, offering an increased amount to the Greater Caldwell County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, reduced funding to the Lockhart Chamber of Commerce, and generally equal funding to the other three organizations. Councilmember Richard Banks seconded the motion.
“That takes away from the five entities working together and starting to work together,” Councilmember Kenny Roland said. “Right now, we’re looking at a divided council and an us-against-them mentality, and our city is split. In order to fix it, my solution is that we take what we have from the committee. They met and they agreed.”
Roland noted that Barron and the Greater Caldwell County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce had the right to change their mind, but that they should have spoken up sooner. He also suggested that the council find additional funding elsewhere in the budget to offer to the Hispanic Chamber, something City Manager Vance Rodgers and City Attorney Peter Gruning eventually informed him the council cannot do.
Barron responded that she had requested the increase because it is the same increase they request every year, but it was up to the council to determine whether to grant that increase, and somehow the conversation had just gotten out of hand.
During a fiery exchange among the councilmembers trying to find a “fair” solution, Castillo asked which of the other three entities were members of the Lockhart Chamber of Commerce, suggesting that even in that, there was a bias on the five-member panel that brought forth the recommendation. The Southwest Museum of Clocks and Watches and the Gaslight-Baker Theatre are, in fact, members of the Lockhart Chamber of Commerce.
Roland’s suggestion that the organizations consider also joining the Hispanic Chamber drew a heated response from much of the standing-room-only crowd, something that Castillo said was evidence of the existing bias.
“There’s your answer, right there in the way they reacted,” he said.
Eventually, Castillo’s motion failed 4-3, and he accused the mayor of “serving one side of the community.”
Hillburn made the motion that the council hold to the vote they took last week, in asking for the recommendation from the entities, to which Banks responded, “… that was last week. This is now.”
After additional heated discussion, during which Southwest Museum of Clocks and Watches curator Gene Galbraith volunteered to give back his organization’s share of the hotel-motel tax money, and Hispanic Chamber of Commerce founder Alfred Cano pressed the council to pass the recommendation to maintain the funding for one more year and give the organizations the chance to come together, the council finally voted 5-2 to keep the funding levels the same, with the Lockhart Chamber of Commerce receiving 59 percent of the available funding, the Greater Caldwell County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce receiving 19 percent, the Gaslight-Baker Theatre receiving 14.6 percent, and each of the museums receiving 3.7 percent. Banks and Castillo remained against the motion, and Councilmember Juan Mendoza grudgingly offered his support.