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Arts Commission worried programs could lose funds under new plan

Friday, June 20, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Arts Commission Chair Brett Barnes sounded an alarm this week over what he characterized as a move to strip funding from the city’s Cultural Arts Grant Program. His concerns focused around a suggestion that a portion of the city’s Hotel/ Occupancy Tax, or HOT, typically used to fund smaller arts grants might be shifted to instead cover the costs of fee waivers associated with larger events such as South by Southwest and Austin City Limits.


It all spilled over to a Tuesday evening stakeholder meeting associated with designing a new special events fee model. In an email to interested parties sent Wednesday morning, Barnes summarized the sentiment he had seen at the meeting. “The group was divided up into six working tables and asked to help brainstorm solutions, address concerns and provide feedback. We were given approximately 45 minutes to complete this assignment,” Barnes wrote.


He said all six groups presented their work, recommendations and questions, agreeing that HOT funds should be taken off the table as a possible funding scenario. They also said they believe the process needs to be slowed down. Barnes wrote that one group recommended that the city take – at minimum – six months to a year to research, educate and gather stakeholder input.


Later in his email, Barnes promised vigilance on the part of his board. “I want to assure you all that Cultural Arts Division Staff and the Arts Commission will be watching this vigilantly,” he said. “We will report or communicate in as timely a manner as possible.”


Barnes also sent an email just before the Tuesday meeting. “I am writing today to call your attention to an issue that has the potential to impact your HOT funding and the cultural contracts many of you have with the city of Austin,” he wrote. “On May 1, 2014, City Council passed Resolution 20140501-036 which directs the City Manager to investigate potential methods for funding costs associated with special events. The resolution also directs the City Manager to create a proposal for a special events fund that will support small and moderately-sized community events as well as a more sustainable, consistent, and analytical method of evaluating and providing financial support for large-scale special events.”


Barnes continued: “One of the identified funding sources is HOT funds. While still just a possible scenario for funding, it is one that is being championed by The Music Commission and many of their constituents and is the only scenario that has been publically presented.”


He offered a conclusion: “At our regularly scheduled commission meeting last night, The Arts Commission voiced our strong concerns about using these HOT funds without proper vetting and input from our creative constituents. We do not feel the aggressive schedule for this allows for proper community input, as well as creating an equitable structure to fund all special events, not just the large-scale productions.”


Barnes called on cultural arts contractors to attend the stakeholder meeting. “I know this is short notice but as cultural contract recipients, I would like to encourage you to attend a public stakeholder meeting to discuss alternative funding for special events,” he wrote.


For his part, Austin Music Commission Chair Brad Spies told the Monitor that his group had suggested an idea that would have city staff perform baseline revenue setting of HOT proceeds in 2014. The city could then examine using a portion of the increase in gross HOT revenues in 2015 – Spies cited 20 percent – to assist with special events funding.


Spies was careful to note that the proposal was not intended as something that would strip any funding from the cultural arts community. He also added that the idea was one of many suggestions made by the Music Commission with regard to special events financing.


Council Member Kathie Tovo agreed. She told the Monitor that her read of the Music Commission’s action was as Spies described it.


Tovo authored an initial Council resolution that called for a detailed look at events fee waivers. The resolution was not specific in its direction. “The City Manager is hereby directed to investigate potential methods for funding costs associated with special events,” it reads. “In exploring this matter, the City Manager should seek input from stakeholders including, but not limited to, event producers and promoters, the Hotel Lodging Association, the Austin Neighborhoods Council, the Arts Commission, the Music Commission, and the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, review best practices from other cities, consider all possible funding sources, and explore the film incentives proposal as a possible model.”


Still, Tovo told the Monitor that, though she sees a gap in the cost of special events and the amount that the city recoups in terms of fees associated with them, her intent was not for the city to shift funds away from cultural arts grants.


Tovo notes that the resolution instructs staff to “look at best practices” with regard to the issue. She noted an early August report-back date embedded in her resolution – originally set to coincide with budget decision-making – and said that she would be willing to entertain an extension.


However, Tovo – who noted that she is looking for some level of progress on the issue – added that she believes that she and her Council colleagues could adjust current fees to cover the gap in revenue. That, she argued, could be accomplished as part of the 2015 budget-making process.


“I know it is a complicated issue and we need a solution that is sustainable,” she said.

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