The City of Hutto’s Economic Development Corporation came under fire this summer when City Manager Odis Jones issued a memo calling out members for wasting taxpayer dollars on lavish trips and upscale hotels aimed at drawing businesses to the central Texas town.
But if $400 per-night stays at Chicago’s Ritz-Carlton, or $470 at Santa Monica’s Casa Del Mar resort wasn’t infuriating enough, Jones announced at a city council meeting this week that the Hutto EDC is now under criminal investigation.
Though the subject of the investigation isn’t yet clear, the revelation came just minutes after Hutto Mayor Pro Tem Tom Hines acknowledged that the EDC had sold land options in an $8 million megasite to a brokerage firm for $10. Hines said that the land options were repurchased by the city at a cost of $275,000. The city had already spent $80,000 on the options and land-use studies for the property.
In addition to the megasite debacle, Hines also pointed out that the EDC had spent thousands of taxpayer dollars on not only the aforementioned trips to Chicago and Santa Monica, but also lavish excursions to New Jersey, Alaska, and New Orleans as well.
The new allegations of inappropriate, and possibly illegal conduct by Hutto’s EDC also include the rental of a suite at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, home of the professional football franchises the New York Giants and the New York Jets.
At its most recent meeting, Hutto City Council approved the hiring of a forensic investigator to assist police chief Byron Frankland with the investigation.
In response, Hutto EDC member Anne Cano came to the group’s defense, saying, “You can’t court businesses very well staying at Motel 6,” curiously implying that EDC negotiations happen in hotel rooms and hinge on their level of extravagance.
Meanwhile, Jones claims that these expenses can’t be justified based on the EDC’s track record.
“It had the opportunity to recruit about 149 companies (from 2015-17) and it hasn’t been able to land one of them,” he said.
According to its 2016 annual report, the EDC completed two deals that included one business expansion and one business retention.
Commenting on the investigation, Jones said he had told Frankland that if he found “someone stealing money” during the investigation, to make sure he puts that person in jail.
“The current EDC office is a crime scene,” Jones said. “We are not going to going to talk about what police are doing, how they are doing it or how far they are going.”
Hutto’s EDC was formed through an election of Hutto voters in 1997, and is funded by a half-cent economic development sales tax collected in the city. It currently brings in more than $860,000 annually, and is made up of a seven-member board of volunteers selected by the City Council. The president and vice president of the corporation, who are both paid ($136,500 and $61,000 respectively), are selected by the board members.