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Two Austin non-profits vie for same chunk of city budget

Thursday, April 18, 2013 by Ramon Ramirez

Two non-profits, Austin Playhouse and Skillpoint Alliance, ended up fighting each other last week for the same city funds. But city staff is working on a solution that may allow them to share.  

Last week, Mayor Lee Leffingwell introduced an ordinance to simultaneously amend the Parks and Recreation Department and the Health and Human Services Departments’ operating budgets, providing Skillpoint Alliance with $150,000 originally reserved for the development of Austin Playhouse’s new theatre in the Mueller neighborhood. The move was introduced because Austin Playhouse had failed to raise at least $600,000 on its own by the March 31 deadline.

“The appropriation for Playhouse has expired. It’s dead at this point,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell. The funds were part of a budget amendment that was contingent on Austin Playhouse raising the additional money from private sources by March 31.

But Leffingwell’s resolution failed on a 3-3 vote (Council Member Kathie Tovo was on an trip to Austin sister city Xishuangbanna, China) and the contested amount currently remains in the general fund. The Council is scrambling to change that.

Leffingwell says this decision is about prioritizing limited resources. “Clearly, Skillpoint Alliance is doing something that is a greater need,” he said, “They train people who are disadvantaged . . . And frankly I don’t see how you can prioritize a playhouse.”

Tuesday during a meeting of the City Council Public Health and Human Services Committee, Council Member Chris Riley addressed the possibility of allocating funds for both entities. “We left this kind of in limbo (last week) on a 3-3 vote,” Riley said, “I thought it was unfortunate that the Austin Playhouse needs were being pitted against Skillpoint Alliance . . . We’re also talking about, among other things, what could potentially be a future site for affordable housing in the neighborhood.”

To that end, Riley appealed to the notion of funding Austin Playhouse through unallocated monies on the merits that the new Austin Playhouse theater will eventually incorporate the development of affordable housing. Currently, Neighborhood Housing and Community Development has “about” $2.5 million in the competitive process from which developers can apply for funding.

Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Director Elizabeth Spencer expressed an openness to “walk (Austin Playhouse) through our process—we’re not that much different from a bank or lender” and “see if there’s an opportunity for us to fund the affordable housing piece.”

The problem is that Austin Playhouse needs to build its theater before it can build affordable housing. And according to Council Member Laura Morrison, Austin Playhouse “isn’t really ready for phase two. It’s working on the theater, and then phase two is going to have the affordable housing…It feels like it’s a little bit out of sync.”

For anything to work, a new council resolution would be required.

To make matters more muddled, Austin Playhouse’s Executive Artistic Director Don Toner contacted Tovo’s office in early April with hopes of getting an extension on Austin Playhouse’s fundraising deadline. According Tovo’s office, that potential extension was to be introduced during the April 25 Council meeting—with Tovo back from her trip. But as of Wednesday, Tovo’s office is unsure whether they’ll move forward with another resolution. 

Council heard an outpouring of support on behalf of Austin Playhouse during the April 11 meeting. In total, eight different Playhouse supporters made emotional arguments for a deadline extension. Speakers included Gary Grief, Austin Playhouse’s attorney; Hans Venable, president of the Austin Playhouse’s Board of Directors; 11-year local actor Rick Roemer; four-year intern and employee Aiden McCord; and others.

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