County Judge: Sports Authority's Role Should Change

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels and county commissioners have approved an in-house review of the Harris County-Houston sports authority amid questions about whether it's outlived its usefullness.

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The review is the latest chapter in what has become an ongoing debate at the county level about whether the sports authority should be shut down now that all three professional sports stadiums have been completed. The authority's main purpose now is to service debt on bonds that were sold to finance the stadiums, but has virtually no other responsibilities. Last month, the authority's CEO, Oliver Luck, stepped-down to take a job with the new Houston soccer franchise. Previous efforts to shutter the authority have been unsuccessful, so now Eckels says a change in roles might be appropriate.

"I think it's important that we look at the authority and say, okay, we've got a convention bureau that markets, we individually market. Do we want them marketing too or do we think that maybe we should have them looking at facility improvements or maybe we have them looking at other operations within this community. They do work for the court and the city and so all we're saying today is let's let the court and the city tell them which direction they should take as they move forward and hire a new director."

The authority has a $3 million budget and does market the city's sports venues, but most of that work is done by each individual franchise, including the Astros and Rockets, which both own their facilities. Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia says the sports authority still has some usefullness.

"I think until we get rid of all the debt, until we make sure that we have a mechanism in place to work with all the sports people around the country and world about bringing events to the area, we need it there. I think that we need to look at it only in regards to are they meeting their primary mission and looking at their debt and looking at where we're going."

Houston Mayor Bill White's communication director Frank Michel says the mayor is open to suggestions on how the sports authority should move forward, but doesn't want local taxpayers to suffer.

"He would be in favor of looking at any way to streamline the operations, avoid duplication and increase accountability and transparency. What he does not want to do is to have some kind of an arrangment that would shift the bonded debt onto city and county taxpayers of the sports authority."

Although the state legislature has said in the past that the city and county have the power to shut down the sports authority, it's not likely that will happen anytime soon. The sports authority could hire a new chief executive by next month.

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