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Council members, arts groups upset over funding changes, timing

Wednesday, March 24, 2010 by Austin Monitor

City-funded arts groups have been rocked by a proposed change to requirements for receiving funding for the upcoming year, and they have deluged the City Council with emails and phone calls protesting the change. That proposed change — which requires groups to describe how their activities will directly support or promote tourism — came in response to concerns that the city was not spending Hotel Occupancy Tax funds (HOT) as intended by state law.


Last September as part of the budget process, the City Council approved an innocuous-sounding resolution directing the city manager to start a review process “to ensure all grant funds allocated from the Hotel Occupancy Tax are expended in accordance with Chapter 351 of the Texas Tax Code” and city code.


Under this year’s budget, the city is providing more than $5.3 million in contracts for cultural arts services to 142 groups ranging from Academia De Danza y Folklore to the Zilker Theater Productions. In addition to performance groups, numerous educational programs depend on the grants from occupancy tax money.


In mid-March, Vincent Kitch, the city’s cultural arts program manager, sent an email to arts organizations alerting them to the proposed changes in application forms for the coming year. It says, “All funding projects must have public performances, events, services, etc. that involve both tourists and residents. You will be required to track this information throughout the project period and report participation as part of your final report.”


Kitch then went on to suggest ways the groups could keep track of tourists. “I wanted to let you know about this issue so you may incorporate this requirement as you begin to prepare your FY 2011 application.” That application was on the city’s Web site Tuesday and is due on May 1. The city says it will hold two workshops to help artists prepare their new forms on April 1.


However, when contacted Tuesday Kitch seemed less sure about what would be required of the arts groups. He said the Law Department had done research “that translated into the recommendations that we’re considering at this time.” Asked when he would make a decision, he said,” It’s not for me to decide. We’re pulling together information to share with Council and we will be looking for policy direction from Council related to this.”


Asked why it had taken so long, Kitch said, “It was only recently that the Law Department finalized its recommendations and forwarded them to us.”


Two Council members said Tuesday afternoon that they had each received more than 500 emails on the subject since Monday morning. Some of those sending emails have done so from an Austin theater group that is urging members of the arts community and others to contact the City Council. The site features a letter to the City Council from Michael Melinger and Andrew Long.  ( )


Melinger is the founder of the Austin Jazz Workshop, which provides music education to children in 117 local elementary schools in Austin ISD, Del Valle, Manor, and Round Rock. “Essentially what this change would mean would be there would be no arts education funding for non-profit groups,” he told In Fact Daily.


Melinger says the city is “applying a narrow interpretation of the state attorney general’s ruling concerning the use of state Hotel Occupancy Tax funds. Under the current interpretation that has been in place for years in Austin, HOT funds have been used to support a wide variety of creative, community-based arts organizations. These groups increase the city’s livability, complement its artistic temperament, and boost tourism by putting Austin on the map as a city with a vibrant and exciting arts culture.”  


The HOT tax provides about a third of the funds for Melinger’s group, about $37,000 last year. He said, “If we lost a third of our funding we’d essentially have to radically cut the schools we visit.” He thinks the decision could impact up to 50 groups. He blamed a hotel lobby group for raising the issue.


Melinger concluded, “What we need the Council to do at this point is issue a statement reaffirming the city’s commitment to keeping Austin an arts destination for tourism by promoting the arts — all the arts … dance, film, literature, spoken word, music, visual arts … We didn’t create our arts scene in a vacuum … the reason we have these things is because we’ve nurtured these people.”


Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez and Council Member Randi Shade both criticized Kitch for announcing the application changes in March.


Martinez said, “I think it’s been wholly mismanaged by staff to send out an email to the arts community and inciting them without us having even being briefed on this issue. We don’t even know when that attorney general opinion came out; some of us have tried to do some online research on that opinion. The bottom line is that staff has never once come and talked to us about this … No one has talked to us, and it’s sent out to the community and it causes a major uproar. I just think it was really poorly managed.”


Shade agreed. “I’m a little perplexed as to why this is an issue now . . . The staff schedule was not well thought through. Why would you spring it on people right now?”


However, Shade said if the city has failed to comply with the law in the past, “then I’m glad we’re going to be compliant in the future. … Tourism is down and that’s a really important business for us.” However, she said she would continue to support city funding for arts programs, just not necessarily HOT funding.


Shade said there was “no doubt that supporting the cultural arts is a huge part of what makes Austin Austin, and these types of programs should be funded with funds that are allowable.”


Council Member Bill Spelman said, “We probably should be giving organizations that are bidding on this more information than just a list of seven things you can do … a lot of people are going to have uncertainty” about what they need to do to qualify for next year’s funding cycle. He suggested the city might postpone the application deadline for a couple of weeks to offer more assistance to applicants.

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