Local 2 Investigates: Taxpayers foot bill for Astrodome

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter
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HOUSTON - The eighth wonder of the world may be empty and unusable, but it is certainly not free to taxpayers. As we hit another year with no decision as to what to do with the Astrodome, Local 2 Investigates obtained a breakdown of exactly what taxpayers are spending on what essentially has become a vacant building.

"We love that building; it's tearing our hearts out to see it sit there and die," said Leroy Shafer, Chief Operating Officer for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. "Well, hell it's dead, we're just watching it decay."

Local 2 Investigates wanted to know exactly what taxpayers are spending every year on the Dome since a laundry list of fire and health code violations officially shut the building down in 2009.

According to records maintained by the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, taxpayers have spent $7.9 million dollars on the Dome since 2009.

In that database of expenses there are items like $1,200 for shrub removal, nearly $30,000 to decommission elevators, $46,000 to repair roof drains, nearly $13,000 for inspections and repairs to fire extinguishers and hoses and nearly $60,000 to repair the Dome's fire alarm panel.

Taxpayers also spent more than $3.7 million in "utility expense allocation" since 2009. Part of this money comes from having to maintain the Dome's transformers since other parts of Reliant Complex are tied into the Dome's power system. HCSCC Executive Director Willie Loston said water pumps also have to be "constantly" used to keep the Dome's lower levels from flooding.

Loston told Local 2 all of this work has to be done so the county can continue insuring the Dome. According to HCSCC records, since 2009 it has cost more than $1.4 million to insure the Dome.

"What do you think when you see that figure?" Local 2 asked in reference to the total cost of maintaining the Dome since 2009.

"It's why we're pushing as fast as we can," said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

Emmett said it is ultimately up to County Commissioners to decide what to do with the Dome. However, Emmett said it is HCSCC's job to find that option and present it to Commissioners. HCSCC manages the Dome and Reliant complex for the county.

"There have been too many fits and starts along the way," said Emmett.

Emmett, HCSCC officials and Shafer all said they've received many good ideas as what to do with the Dome over the years, but all said every idea, other than just blowing it up, would wind up costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

"So far none of them have brought any private money with them," said Emmett. "The taxpayers shouldn't have to do that."

"There was nothing that made economic sense unless you just found third party money that was benevolent," said Shafer.

"Is an answer ever going to present itself other than demolition?" asked Arnold.

"Well, I don't think so," said Shafer. "We haven't seen one."

"I don't think we're there yet," Emmett said in response to the same question.

Emmett said the county has reached the point "where something has to be done," which is why he said he pushed the HCSCC to set a deadline for coming up with an idea for the Dome.

"This thing would have kept drifting and drifting and you'd be here next year kicking me in the shins all over again," said Emmett.

HCSCC set a June 10th deadline to "determine the feasibility" of any privately financed options or public use recommendations. Those ideas will then be presented to Commissioners during a June 25 Capital Improvements Program hearing. Emmett said any idea presented to Commissioners "approaching $100 million" will have to go to the voters to decide. However, Emmett said he is concerned about presenting any idea to voters during a November bond referendum.

"Harris County doesn't have anything on the ballot, it's only a city of Houston election," said Emmett. "So is that a fair representation of county voters when it will be skewed heavily only to the city of Houston."

During an April 17 Board of Directors meeting, HCSCC officials asked that if a bond referendum is not ordered or if one fails, that they be allowed to prepare a plan "to decommission and subsequently demolish the Reliant Astrodome."

A more clear timetable of what may happen to the Dome will be known after the June 25 hearing.






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