Despite a Small Cut, Ruth Eckerd Hall to Receive Lion's Share of City Contributions
By Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER - While most Florida municipalities have been agonizing over the budget cuts they must make in response to state-mandated property tax rollbacks, the City of Clearwater's axe has largely been retired for this budget season.
Instead of contemplating what to cut, the Clearwater City Council has been dealing with a projected $3-million of revenue in excess of that forecast earlier this year by Budget Director Tina Wilson, and occupying themselves with deciding what services and programs to add back into the 2007/08 city budget.
At its July 16th Budget Workshop, the Council, absent member Carlen Petersen who was on vacation, agreed to restore $481-thousand of outside agency contributions that had been cut from the preliminary budget. Every agency that had its hand out received its funding request, with PACT, Inc, the operators of Ruth Eckerd Hall, receiving a $14,330 increase to $491,950, the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless receiving new funding of $20,000, and the Jolley Trolley suffering a cut of $79,000 to a subsidy of $150,000 from the city's General Fund.
With Petersen having returned from vacation, last Wednesday's Council Budget Workshop reviewed the city's contributions to outside agencies.
PACT/Ruth Eckerd Hall, representing more than 50-percent of the city's outside contributions, received special attention. In addition to the $491,950, PACT requested $200,000 to help with its education programs and $20,000 to fund its management of the Clearwater Community Chorus.
PACT spared no effort in defending its city subsidies. Robert Freedman, the non-profit organization's president, orchestrated a cast of his own staff and volunteers to deliver a message that Ruth Eckerd Hall's funding was deserved, consuming nearly one hour of the meeting in the process.
Freedman, a Clearwater resident, began the presentation with a quote, "the arts are an investment in human potential. That's what I feel in my heart Ruth Eckerd Hall is all about." Freedman claimed that studies have shown a return of 7:1 on government funding of the arts.
Of the following 19 staff members, volunteers and singers who spoke on behalf of Ruth Eckerd Hall, only 9 were Clearwater residents.
John Wiser, a city activist who resides in Countryside, was the only speaker opposed to the city's funding of Ruth Eckerd Hall. "The private sector are the ones that keep that hall running," he said, "I don't think the taxpayers should have to do it anymore."
Councilmember Paul Gibson sought to eliminate a $200-thousand contribution to Ruth Eckerd Hall's education programs, noting that the city's $300-thousand contribution last year was unbudgeted, and that multi-year commitments should not come from reserves.
But Gibson received no support from his colleagues. Councilmember Carlen Petersen commended Ruth Eckerd hall for recognizing the city's budget woes and reducing their request for education funding. Petersen lamented that whenever budgets are cut, the arts are the first programs to lose funding; "Without the arts, what are we," Petersen asked rhetorically. The Council voted 4-1 to provide the requested $200-thousand, Gibson casting the only vote against.
While he supported the continued city funding of Ruth Eckerd Hall's education programs, Councilmember George Cretekos renewed his effort make across the board cuts in the city's cash contributions to outside agencies. He moved to cut all but the Jolley Trolley contribution by 5-percent, but Mayor Frank Hibbard, Vice Mayor John Doran and Petersen succeeded in limiting the 5-percent cut to contributions of $10-thousand and under.
Cretekos was not satisfied. "I'm not comfortable with the message that sends to our citizens," he said of keeping the city's remaining cash contributions intact. But Petersen and Hibbard objected to making any cuts to Ruth Eckerd Hall.
"I still think that everybody ought to receive some sort of a reduction," Cretekos said. He moved to cut the funding level of programs over $10-thousand by 3-percent, and this time Doran crossed over to join Gibson and Cretekos in supporting it.
As a result, the city's contributions in 2007/08 to Ruth Eckerd Hall will be reduced by $14,755, and the Clearwater Community Chorus by $600. All cuts considered, the combination of Ruth Eckerd hall and the Chorus will represent over 51-percent of the city's contributions to outside agencies next year.
Contacted after the cuts were made, PACT President Robert Freedman said, "I think we can deal with that." He said that efforts would be made to increase revenue to make up the difference; "We might have to raise parking $1," he said.
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