By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
He said in an e-mail, "On my trusty HP calculator, I get about $34.4 million for $500 million at 5.5%."
So that would put us at the razor's edge or close to it. We get something like $35 million a year—$40 million if things get better—from the hotel. We pay something like $34.4 million on the bonds. That's with everything going along smooth as silk—strong occupancy, strong room rents, no big unforeseen costs.
But I have a couple room reservations. First of all, I take the room rents and the occupancy rates that the city is promising for this thing, and I get a much lower annual income per room than HVS does.
And what about this? Houston's very successful city-owned Hilton Americas convention hotel, with the same number of rooms we are planning, has been paying the city an average of $22 million a year over the last five years. Peter McStravick, COO and treasurer of the Houston Convention Center Hotel Corp., explained to me that the hotel there generates revenue to the city according to a formula of hotel revenue and tax rebates similar to what is planned here.
Same size hotel. Bigger market. About two-thirds the payout they're claiming we'll see here.
Plus, I can't stop worrying about Gonzalez's calculation of the payment. I looked at three city entities that make payments every year on revenue bonds. If the hotel bonds have to be paid back at the same rate that the American Airlines Arena is paying on its debt, the annual payment on the hotel is going to be $42 million a year, not $34.4.
At the same rate the Convention Center pays on its revenue bonds, the annual payment for the hotel bonds will be $47 million. At the rate the Dallas Water Utilities pays, the hotel bonds will cost $50 million a year.
So why are we not concerned that the calculation of the revenue from the hotel may be too high and the calculation of the cost of the debt too low?
If something slips—if anything goes south with the revenue bonds on this hotel—it's not merely a matter of the city making up some incremental difference. Say they're short a couple mil. We front two mil for them? Nope. Doesn't work that way.
In 2003 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the city financed a convention hotel with revenue bonds. The projections proved a tad optimistic—not wildly, but just enough that the hotel couldn't quite make its bond payments. Guess what? They had to ditch the revenue bonds entirely and refinance the whole thing, backing it with property tax money and putting the taxpayer on the hook.
Here's the thing. Money is money. I know it may be tax money or bond money or revenue bond money or something. But it's money. Somewhere ultimately there are limits.
I find that a surprising number of people think of bond money as free money, for example. They say to me, "Jim, it's not coming out of taxes." Oh, but it is. With interest. Next year while City Hall is emptying the kids' swimming pools, the city will also have to make payments amounting to more than a quarter billion dollars on general obligation debt.
The city is like a person. It doesn't have an unlimited ability to borrow. We have a credit rating to maintain.
The lenders watch closely to see how much the city owes compared with the ability of the taxpayers to pay it back. That's how they decide how much interest to charge us on bonds.
That number, called the "per capita general obligation debt," has been moving in the wrong direction for the last three years. The city has run up significantly higher debts in our names than it was carrying three years ago—an increase of 23 percent, as a matter of fact.
Now think what happens if something goes a little wobbly with those hotel bonds. All of a sudden $500 million in debt has to be refinanced as general obligation debt. The debt of the city increases 30 percent in one day.
Why did they rush this whole thing through so fast? Did you get it? Did you understand it? What does it mean when somebody has a deal for you, and they talk so fast you can't understand them, and they're all in a rush to get you to sign?
If I were in the rug market in Istanbul, I could tell you exactly what it means. Put your hands in your pockets and return to the boat.
But City Hall? You hate to feel that way about your own City Hall. For one thing, there's no boat.