Arts Center believes city budget cut is step toward privatization; city says it’s simply following public-private agreement

The Lawrence Arts Center sustained a $55,000 cut in funding for building maintenance as part of the city’s 2017 budget, and years to come will likely bring more reductions.

Arts Center leaders said the cut came as a surprise, and is moving the center closer to a private entity that may have to reduce some of its hours or eliminate some of the free and low cost services it provides to the public.

“The city is taking steps toward privatizing the Lawrence Arts Center, which is not a part of our vision and not a part of our plan,” said Arts Center CEO Susan Tate. “Public funding is very important to keeping an entity open to the public, and we hope that the city reverses course.”

The city owns the building that houses the Arts Center, located at 940 New Hampshire St., and leases it to the center. As part of the lease agreement, the city is responsible for major exterior and structural maintenance to the Arts Center, but not interior upkeep. City Manager Tom Markus said the funding reduction is the first phase of returning funding to what was originally intended by the agreement, under which the city has been paying more than required for interior maintenance.

“The reduction in funding is consistent with the written document that exists from the very origins of that center,” Markus said. “…That document says that’s their responsibility, so it’s hard for me to understand the argument then that we’re shifting away from some obligation that we never had to begin with.”

The cut to the Arts Center amounts to a 50 percent reduction to the $110,000 the city is currently paying toward interior maintenance of the 40,000-square-foot building. The center had requested about $156,000 for interior facilities maintenance in 2017.

Lawrence city commissioners at their meeting Aug. 2 unanimously approved an approximately $240 million city budget for 2017, which forewent some other reductions recommended by Markus by increasing the property tax rate by 0.53 mills. But the majority of commissioners agreed with the reductions to the Arts Center.

“We thought we were phasing it back into what the language absolutely says,” Markus said.

Markus said the 50 percent cut this year was a way to phase in the changes so the Arts Center didn’t feel the full impact of shifting funding back to what the lease agreement says, The intent is to cut the remaining $55,000 in 2018. He added there was no good explanation as to why the city was paying more than what was laid out in the agreement.

“If in fact it was a conscious decision, the question that remains is why wasn’t the agreement amended?” Markus said. “I suspect somebody didn’t follow the agreement at some point, or refer back to it.”

Tate said she thinks the 50 percent reduction for 2017 and the intent to eliminate the interior facilities maintenance funding altogether by 2018 is not in line with the spirit of a public arts center.

“Public support for the arts has been an important value in Lawrence since the Lawrence Arts Center opened in 1974, in a different city-owned building,” Tate said. “Removing public funding for the arts has happened in the state of Kansas, but is not something we expect to see in Lawrence.”

The city will continue to provide $30,000 toward scholarships that allow low-income students to enroll in Arts Center programs. The Arts Center had requested $60,000 for scholarships in 2017. Together, the interior facility’s maintenance and the scholarship funds amount to about 4 percent of the Arts Center’s $3 million operating budget, Tate said. The city, however, also spends funds over and above those two line items that benefit the arts center.

The Arts Center previously operated out of the Carnegie Building located at 200 W. 9th St. When the agreement to build the new Arts Center was made, about 40 percent of the funding for the more than $7-million building was provided by the arts center. City-issued bonds funded the remainder, and the city continues to pay more than $200,000 per year in debt payments on those bonds. The city also pays the utilities and service contracts on the building, which are about $130,000 per year, according to Assistant City Manager Casey Toomay.

Though scholarship and building payments will not change, Tate said the interior maintenance funds are important because they help keep the center accessible to the community. The interior maintenance funds are used to pay for one full-time and three part-time positions that provide interior upkeep to the building as well as allow it to be open to public for extended hours, Tate said. She said that in addition to being open every day for 12 hours, the Arts Center allows other nonprofit groups or artists to use the building at no or low cost.

“We have made no decisions about what we will cut, but the fact is cutting interior maintenance of the building in half is something we are going to feel and it will have an impact on how open we can be, and how often we can allow free or low-cost uses of the building,” Tate said.

The City Commission is expected to give final approval to the city’s operating and capital improvement budget at its meeting Aug. 16.