When the fat lady sings

Facing an estimated $31 million budget shortfall, Tacoma faces some tough decisions about funding the arts

By Paul Schrag on December 8, 2011

Amongst several hundred police officers and firefighters, Amy Tiemeyer took the podium in front of Tacoma City Council to plead her case. Tiemeyer was one of just a few who didn't arrive solely in support of the Tacoma Police or Fire Department officers and the communities they serve. Tiemeyer is Youth Fitness Specialist Trainer for the D.A.S.H. Center for the Arts, and she was there to ask Tacoma City Council for the same thing everyone else was there to ask for - to be pardoned as the council decides which programs, jobs and services to cut during a round of hard budget cuts.

For those who haven't heard, the City of Tacoma is facing up to a $31 million budget shortfall in 2012. To balance the municipal budget, Tacoma officials asked various department heads to craft a plan that involves juggling and rerouting various elements of departmental budgets; eliminating services; adjusting wages of city employees; eliminating programs; and laying off more than 160 city employees. And while police and fire appear likely to bear the brunt of layoffs, everyone is getting hit this time. Every city department was asked to make cuts.

Listening to several hours of public commentary gave the impression that public safety and the arts are somehow pitted against each other - fighting over the same scraps, as it were. Others implied that arts and public safety share common purposes. As Mayor Marilyn Strickland pointed out during the Dec. 6 marathon Council session, arts and other community attractions help create the tax base that pays for public services, for example. Various officers and fire fighters, meanwhile, suggested that people aren't as likely to enjoy arts in a community where they don't feel safe.

"To survive, arts programs need the people who live here to feel safe," says firefighter Patrick Edmond, who operates from the downtown Tacoma station. "A thriving, vibrant city is dependent on safety, and people feeling invited."

D.A.S.H. Center, meanwhile, has its own impact on community crime rates, says Tiemeyer. This impact should be considered as well, as Tacoma officials weigh the proposal to cut a $34,000 line item dedicated to helping the D.A.S.H. Center stay open.

"Arts programs like D.A.S.H. and Youth Build and Fab5 have a direct impact on inner city crime and gang violence," says Tiemeyer. "That money helps pay for things that matter to these kids. The kids we work with are already have-nots. We've had gang members in the past, and it's a hard battle. We help them in so many ways. We help them with wraparound services [e.g. - healthcare, counseling, job counseling, personal empowerment coaching). Our kids are in this gray area between making good decisions and acting out. If our lights are off, we can't serve them."

D.A.S.H. - which stands for Dancing, Acting, and Singing in Harmony - is a "non-profit organization dedicated to broadening the horizons of inner city youth by means of the Arts." D.A.S.H. provides performing arts instruction and programs to people - mostly youth - from struggling communities and lower income families in Tacoma and Pierce County. D.A.S.H. serves as home to community outreach organization Reality Check, and offers weekly dance classes and six outreach programs. The loss of $34,000 in funding doesn't sink the whole D.A.S.H. ship, but it could put and end to various programs offered at the center.

Tiemeyer doesn't exaggerate the impact of the programs offered by D.A.S.H. D.A.S.H. participants have won all sorts of awards, including a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Scholarship. All of the current D.A.S.H. participants are enrolled in school, all at the same time, for the first time. They perform at Ethnic Fest, Taste of Tacoma, Urban Arts Fest, the recent Remann Hall graduation ceremony and other community events.

"It (crime prevention) has to do with creating community too," says Tiemeyer.

D.A.S.H. would be just one victim of budget cuts aimed at the arts. Cutting the hours of City of Tacoma staff dedicated to supporting the arts puts various services, like the Tacoma Arts Listserv, at risk. And while it's unfair to compare those impacts to the impacts of dozens of jobs, the community is still going to feel it. The $405,000 that the Tacoma Arts Commission redistributes each biennium supports programs and projects for 42 arts organizations and 17 artists who serve close to 800,000 people per year. Collateral spending for the 12 larger arts organizations alone in 2010 exceeded $12 million dollars.

"The Arts Commission Office was asked to consider a 15 percent budget offering," says Sarah Idstrom, chair of the Tacoma Arts Commission. "We've done that. That included curtailing some programs, salary adjustments, cutting maintenance and a lot of other measures."

Among measures being considered is a ticket tax, which would include a 5-percent fee affixed to ticket sales among arts organizations that have annual admission revenues over $250,000. For decades, the city's nonprofit museums, theaters and other performing arts groups have been exempt from the ticket tax. Early estimates suggest the tax could help the city rake in as much as $600,000 per year.

But directors of local arts organizations fear the ticket tax will hit them during a time when budgets are already threadbare.

"We are fortunate in Tacoma to have the support of the city through the Tacoma Arts Commission, of which the TSO is an anchor organization. However, it appears likely that the arts commission budget will be cut. If that happens, the TSO and other anchor organizations could get hit twice - our grants reduced on the one hand, and a 5-percent admission tax on the other," says Tacoma Symphony Executive Director Andy Buelow in a public statement on the Symphony's website. "Our arts and cultural organizations are key to the revitalization of Tacoma. I've only been here four years, but everyone tells me what the city center used to be like. Even today, the amount of retail in downtown Tacoma - though growing steadily - is lower than in many comparably-sized cities. Collectively arts and cultural organizations bring thousands of people downtown, and generate critical business throughout the city."

Others contend that this kind of tax could put Tacoma on a slippery slope. Ticket sales to nonprofit organizations are usually tax-exempt, they say, reflecting the educational and non-commercial nature of a nonprofit's mission. They contend changing this status sets a bad precedent. Meanwhile, raising ticket prices runs the risk of putting arts events out of the financial reach of many financially strapped Tacomans. The tax would have to be charged on any and all ticketed activities, including fundraising galas, educational events and even zoo admissions, potentially impacting thousands of participants.

Idstrom says these things deserve much consideration as city officials work toward final decisions about cuts.

"My belief is that every city council member understands the importance of the arts," says Idstrom. "They recognize the economic importance and the enrichment of life for people of all ages - a specific, tangible importance. But they have to come up with $31 million. I don't think they're going to go gunning for the arts, but tough decisions have to be made."