SCFD board: Unanimous vote to stay the course

Erin Rollman. Photo by John Moore.
Buntport Theater co-founder Erin Rollman led the crowd at the Butterfly Pavilion through an alternative funding plan called FACE that would have provided more tax revenue to the area’s smallest arts organizations. Photo by John Moore.

WESTMINSTER – The dozens of arts advocates who packed the Butterfly Pavilion on Thursday overwhelmingly agree the one-of-a-kind taxing district that provides metro cultural organizations with more than $52 million a year is a national model that must be preserved.

But what exact shape that model should take when it goes before voters for reauthorization in November 2016 has been the subject of growing discontent over the past five months.

In May, the governing board of the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District unanimously adopted the recommendations of a multi-year task force that would essentially provide an additional $2.2 million a year to the smallest of the SCFD’s 304 member organizations should the tax be reauthorized by voters next year.

But a variety of concerns have been raised since, ranging from transparency to overall fairness. And so on Thursday, the 13-member SCFD board of directors agreed to hear new information and alternative plans from those arts advocates who feel the presently offered concessions will not help the smallest arts organizations to achieve proportional parity.

“We have a fundamental agreement that the Tier II and III’s deserve more money,” said SCFD board chairman Dan Hopkins. “The conversation is over how much.”

The board heard three hours of civil but impassioned, numbers-crunching testimony, after which they voted 13-0 to leave the task force’s previous recommendations unchanged.

“This was a process of negotiation and compromise, and we ended up in the middle,” said task force member Jim Harrington.

The SCFD is a penny-per-$10 sales tax that was first approved by metro voters in 1989 and has been reauthorized by large voter margins twice since. The taxing district is structured into three tiers, with the metro area’s five largest institutions constituting Tier I: The Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Denver Botanic Gardens, Denver Art Museum, Denver Center for the Performing Arts and Denver Zoo. The next-biggest 28 arts groups are in Tier II, and there are 271 in Tier III. 

Assuming the tax is reauthorized by voters next year, this pre-election process is the SCFD’s only chance to tinker with the existing formula for the next 12 years. And there is much at stake. Harrington estimates that by 2030, the SCFD should be generating a staggering $88 million a year.

Jerome H. Kern of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Dan Hopkins. Photos by John Moore. Jerome H. Kern of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, left, tells SCFD Board Chairman Dan Hopkins, right, about the financial consequences of future Tier II growth. Photos by John Moore.

While it was widely hoped that hosting Thursday’s public forum will clear the way for all arts advocates to move forward and work together for the SCFD’s reauthorization, the board’s quick vote and immediate dismissal of all three alternative plans without taking them under further advisement did little to engender real unity. While dozens of arts organizations and governmental agencies, as well as The Denver Post editorial board, already have endorsed the task force’s recommendations, Tier III advocate Jane Potts took to Facebook after Thursday’s meeting proclaiming, “The Tier III’s lost today.”

“We need a plan that everyone can get behind,” urged Jerome H. Kern, CEO of the Tier II Colorado Symphony Orchestra. His major concern was over the financial consequences of potential Tier II growth on existing member organizations.

“The bottom line at the CSO is that we don’t believe the process is finished,” he said.

But for all intents and purposes, after Thursday’s vote, it is. The SCFD is now expected go to the state legislature in January proposing the following referendum language, a necessary step toward getting on the November ballot:

For the first $38 million in tax revenues collected:

  • Tier I will receive 64 percent (down from 65.5)
  • Tier II will receive 22 percent (up from 21)
  • Tier III will receive 14 percent (up from 13.5)

    For any tax revenues over $38 million:

  • Tier I will receive 57 percent
  • Tier II will receive 26 percent
  • Tier III will receive 17 percent

“The plan adopted by the board represents a significant compromise,” said board member Kathy Kucsan of Boulder County. “Funding for the regional Tier I organizations, our cultural anchors, will stay even with inflation while funding for the Tier II and Tier III organizations will increase at double the rate of inflation. This allows the tier I organizations to maintain their facilities while Tier II and III groups will be able to grow.”

The major counterproposal Thursday was offered by a group called FACE – Friends of Arts and Cultural Equality – which called for a gradual shift in distribution ratios until reaching “20/30/50” by 2030 – 20 percent to Tier III, 30 percent to Tier II and 50 percent to Tier I.

Buntport Theater co-founder Erin Rollman, who presented the FACE plan on Thursday, said Tier I’s would lose about $8 million a year in projected funding by 2030. “But that’s an $8 million shift shared between five giant organizations, with 15 years to plan for it,” she said. “This is not a problematic shift.” And, she emphasized, “None of the tiers are projected to lose any money under this plan. Tier I’s would just be making less of an increase. There’s a big difference.” 

Because the board received the FACE plan in advance of the meeting, Harrington was prepared with a dire response. “Under the FACE plan, Tier I’s would be underfunded by $29.6 million relative to the rate of inflation,” he warned. “Anytime an organization does not have revenue growth that is at least equal to inflation, what happens? You cut your programs. You cut the core. That’s what would happen under this proposal.”

SCFDHopkins remained unconvinced that simply allocating more money to the area’s smallest organizations would solve the real problem. “Just during the life of the SCFD (27 years), nearly 256 Tier III’s have folded,” he said. “So no matter how much money goes into the pot, maybe the larger issue for us to think about is what we can do to help assure the sustainability of these smaller organizations.”

(Photo at right: This “United for SCFD” logo is part of an online petition organizers hope will promote a unified front for the reauthorization campaign moving forward. Erin Rollman and others who advocate changes to the SCFD task force’s recommendations have nevertheless signed the petition.)  

Many local arts representatives used the public comment portion of the meeting to praise the SCFD, advocate for the task force’s recommendations and warn against infighting.

“We believe the reauthorization process was open and inclusive and transparent,” said Colorado Business Committee for the Arts chairman Mark Davidson. “We believe the SCFD task force’s recommendations are the most prudent use of taxpayer dollars.”

Voters reaffirmed their support of the SCFD tax in 1994 and again in 2004 with 65 percent voter approval.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

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