Arts likely to face tough times under city’s budget plans

  • The Tacoma Symphony Orchestra will not have to collect the tax right away but would as its ticket revenue increases. (By Steve Dunkelberger)

While the police and fire cutbacks and layoffs proposed in the city’s budget plan to fill a $31 million funding gap have prompted much of the water cooler talk in Tacoma, the city’s cut to arts programs will likely be the next topic for debate.

Much of Tacoma’s support and marketing of arts programs falls under the Community and Economic Development Department. The department is set to absorb $3.5 million of the city’s proposed cuts. That department’s Art Program Development Specialist, for example, will become a part-time position through the reduction of work hours and a partial shift in funding to an account outside the General Fund. A contracted staffer will also be cut.

“This reduces support for the Tacoma Arts Commission, with limited or no ability to maintain communications and marketing efforts, i.e. Facebook posts, listserv management, arts blogs etc,” the budget stated.

Further cuts include the elimination of the Arts Program occupational intern and postpones the $150,000 restoration of the totem pole at Fireman’s Park. The city’s Historical Preservation program will shift to the city’s Buildable Lands Fund, which is only funded through 2012, after which the program would be eliminated “resulting in reductions in level of service for historical building permit reviews for both the public and other departments.”

Tacoma supports arts organizations through Tacoma Arts Commission funding of some $405,000 each biannual budget. That money is now in limbo as well.

“We have no idea of if that money will be available,” Arts Administrator Amy McBride said. “Everything is a moving target.”

The task at hand is to examine the department’s core missions and funding sources to determine what efforts can still be done with city staff, what could be managed by others in the arts community and what will have to be cut with the budget reductions.

“We are obviously going to have to pare down and figure out what we can still do,” McBride said, adding that arts programs and museums in Tacoma are vital economic engines alongside tideflat operations, military spending and government services.

The latest economic impact report stated arts brought in $38 million in spending each year. A report slated for next year will likely show that number has been increasing.

“I just don’t think we can take that for granted,” she said. “It is not a throw away. Too much depends on it. We are a model for other cities. I don’t want to participate in a race to the bottom (in terms of arts funding.”

On the revenue side of arts efforts, Tacoma City Council is set to end its exemption of nonprofit theaters and museums from its 5 percent admissions tax as an effort to raise some $600,000 and go into effect in July.

The new rule would affect only those nonprofits that raise more than $250,000 in ticket revenue. The threshold was meant to gain new tax dollars but not overly burden smaller nonprofits.

Tacoma Symphony Orchestra, however, is in an odd situation. It would not be affected by the tax since it only gets about $200,000 in ticket revenue each year. But the new tax might lead to fewer concerts to stay below that threshold or move some of its concerts to venues outside the city to avoid the tax.

“Do we want our arts organizations making that choice?” TSO Executive Director Andrew Buelow said. “I don’t want to be faced with that choice. We want to be in Tacoma. I’m not anxious to change that.”

TSO, like most arts nonprofit organizations, has battled with the downturn by holding back on raising prices in the last three years, offering fewer concerts and adding discounted ticket prices to accommodate the tighter budgets of its patrons.

“I understand what they are up against,” Buelow said. “But it puts Tacoma in the wrong direction.”

Seattle and Olympia have funding troubles as well but have maintained their nonprofit admission tax exemptions. The Tacoma tax could then, potentially, give local arts patrons a reason to look to those cities for their arts and cultural spending.

“Tacoma needs its arts, and the arts community is already suffering the same way as the city just on a smaller scale,” he said. “I don’t want to make it easier to go to another city.”

Broadway Center for the Performing Arts, the Grand Cinema, Tacoma Art Museum and Tacoma Musical Playhouse have all spoken out against the tax out of fear of losing customers.

“It is a bitter pill to swallow,” TAM Executive Director Stephanie Stebich said. “Our plea is that we at least get a seat at the table.”

Revisions arts groups would like to see include a sunset of the tax after the recession improves as well as language that would mean the tax revenue generated by the sale of their tickets goes into marketing efforts instead of just into the city’s General Fund. A meeting between arts venues and city officials is slated for Dec. 20.


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