Austin council delays vote on whether to endorse F1

Formula One will have to wait at least a few days more before getting a final answer from Austin.

The City Council — despite warnings from F1 organizers that the project could fall apart if not endorsed Thursday — decided instead to postpone a key vote until Wednesday: whether to approve an F1 race next year that would be held at a track under construction southeast of Austin.

Council members were mostly supportive of the event itself but said they were concerned the city had not fully vetted the details of pending contracts related to the city's official endorsement of the event. Some council members worried about loopholes in environmental requirements and in an agreement that would eliminate local taxpayer support for the event.

In the run-up to the meeting, the city and F1 representatives reached an agreement that would have race promoters — and not the city, as originally proposed — place an estimated $4 million into a state trust fund account every year for the 10-year duration of the contract.

The council endorsement would make the project eligible for up to $25 million a year in state subsidies, a financial arrangement local F1 backers say is necessary to lure the international event.

"It doesn't make any sense to do this wrong, and there are serious issues" to be resolved, said Council Member Laura Morrison, who suggested the delay. "I think it's the responsible thing on our part to take the time to do this right."

"Our quarrel is not against F1 or doing the race," Council Member Bill Spelman said. "It's not the basic terms of the agreement but to be sure the words in this contract are such that they're properly implemented."

The delay came after about three hours of testimony from dozens of residents speaking both for and against the track. About 50 construction workers from the site in bright orange-and-yellow safety vests lined the back of the council chambers. During much of the testimony, the spacious room was packed elbow-to-elbow.

More than 250 people signed up to speak, although many ultimately decided simply to weigh in for or against and not to elaborate.

In the frantic lead-up to Thursday's meeting, the contracts were revised several times, and during the meeting and over lunch, city officials and F1 lawyers continued revisions.

Before the vote, Richard Suttle, an attorney representing local F1 organizers, said a delay could derail the project because of a tight timetable for state Comptroller Susan Combs to review an agreement between the city and race organizers and release a $25 million state subsidy in time to meet a late July F1 deadline.

Suttle said time was short for a local "organizing committee" to do a required review of the contracts before they go to Combs. He said even a short council delay could complicate the schedule because it could force committee members to meet near the Fourth of July weekend, when he said they might have trouble making a quorum.

"It throws the project into a very bad position if you postpone today," Suttle told the council. Although it may be only six days, "it is a major concern to the project."

Leffingwell was the lone council member to vote against the delay.

"I think it's fraught with risk," he said. "It could kill the deal for the City of Austin."

After the vote, Steve Sexton, president of Circuit of the Americas, the F1 race planned for Austin, downplayed the delay's effect. "We're in agreement on the substance of the terms. We will be good citizens of Austin."

Asked about the delay's effect on the project, he replied, "No, I don't believe it puts the entire project at risk."

During the public testimony, critics accused F1 organizers of trying to rush the project through without proper oversight. They cited the fact that organizers asked for the city's endorsement only three weeks ago and noted a recent editorial in Autoweek magazine that warns Austin about rushing into a partnership with F1.

Supporters responded that the project has been in the public eye for a year and could be a boon for Austin, as well as transform the economy of southeastern Travis County.

Wyman Gilliam, the owner of Wild Bubba's restaurant in Elroy, said F1 would bring needed economic development to the area and be an improvement on the landfills, quarries and other industrial projects that eastern Travis County has attracted over the years.

"We're known for nice dumps," Gilliam said. "This internationally known event will put Austin, Texas, on the global stage. Our side of Austin will be a center for industry, research and big-time entertainment."

Suttle and other F1 backers said repeatedly that the city would not be required to direct any tax money to the event. "We've taken the risk away from you. You have no risk," he said.

Despite the assurances, critics remained skeptical.

To assuage them, Council Member Sheryl Cole instructed City Attorney Sabina Romero to read a passage from the contract out loud: "This agreement does not require expenditure of city funds into the Major Events Trust Fund." The Statesman

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