Fort Worth task force recommends using gas revenue to help fund arts

Posted Thursday, Mar. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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FORT WORTH -- The final recommendations from the city's arts funding task force keeps its hands off of Fort Worth's hotel tax but pushes several other ideas, including one that uses a mix of gas lease and royalty earnings and general fund revenues to modestly increase proposed funding next year.

The proposal -- if approved by the City Council -- would gradually reduce reliance on the general fund for the arts, and potentially raise the amount of money available each year, based on the city's earnings from unencumbered gas revenues that are in a trust. The task force expects to present its plan to the Council in April.

None of the task force's recommendations centered on revenue from the hotel tax, set aside by the City Council for improvements at the Will Rogers Memorial Center and Fort Worth Convention Center and funding for the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"As much as we'd like to have a bigger piece of pie, I think we're bringing a recommendation that recognizes the value of the arts to the community and also recognizes the economic realities of where we are today and promises some future upside," task force Chairman Robert Benda, chief executive of Westwood Contractors in Fort Worth, said in closing out the last of several task force meetings Wednesday.

Benda characterized the recommendations as conservative and realistic. "I think we're recommending a sound, highly likely potential for a minimum level of funding," he said.

Task force members emphasized they want the city to eventually return to strong levels of funding for the arts that were in place before the downturn.

"We understand the city has a couple more years of tight funding," said Robert Bass, a task force member and Fort Worth financier. "As the projections move to surplus, we certainly look forward to a return to historic funding [levels] for the arts."

Lori Thomson, a task force member and co-owner of the Firehouse Pottery & Gallery in Fort Worth, questioned the exclusion of the hotel tax from the recommendations.

"We are really doing a disservice to the arts of not looking into it," she said, citing the $84 million in economic impact the arts bring to Fort Worth estimated in a recent study by a Washington, D.C., arts group. "Every time we fund the arts and the arts grow, it brings in more money."

Jody Ulich, president of the Arts Council of Fort Worth & Tarrant County, has touted the hotel tax, which must be used to generate hotel stays, as an ideal funding source for the arts.

She worried that gas earnings could decline over time, but she said the task force's recommendations are a "good step in the right direction.

"I think they really worked hard and found a lot of creative solutions," she said.

The staff proposed a variation of the gas idea in one of the task force's earliest meetings.

Under the final recommendation, in 2014, $1.1 million would go to the arts in grants distributed by the Arts Council plus a fee paid to the organization for management of the city-owned Community Arts Center.

That would be a modest increase from the $966,000 the city contributed last year.

Of the $1.1 million, $650,000 would come from the gas trust, and $450,000 from the general fund.

By fiscal 2022, the last projected year of general fund money for the arts under the proposal, funding would rise to $1.34 million, based on conservative projections for earnings growth. Of that, $1.25 million would come from gas earnings, and $90,000 from the general fund.

The equation includes an annual "escalator" meant to help protect the arts funding from inflation, although Bass warned arts expenses often exceed inflation because of their "labor intensity."

Some task force members worried the recommendation still leaves the arts vulnerable to general fund competition for the near term.

"We still, for about four years, have a significant amount of money coming out of the general fund for the Arts Council," Becky Renfro Borballa, an executive at Renfro Foods in Fort Worth, said.

Johnny Campbell, chief executive of Sundance Square in Fort Worth and task force member whose subcommittee developed the gas idea with the city staff, said its appeal was that the affected gas revenues weren't allocated to other uses.

"That was really attractive," he said.

The hotel tax idea died because the CVB isn't being funded to an adequate level today by the tax, and because of the need for improvements at Will Rogers and the Convention Center, Benda said.

Once the task force submits its recommendations to the city, the council can approve them or seek modifications.

The task force also recommended:

An annual city contribution to the arts of 2.5 percent of estimated economic impact, or $2.1 million based on the Washington group's study, whose findings were based only on data from the groups that responded.

Creating a local arts foundation;

Restoring Convention and Visitors Bureau funding to its full level in current contract talks, making the CVB's current arts grant program part of the contract, and linking the grants to hotel stays;

Looking into whether it's feasible for arts organizations on city property, including Casa Mañana and the major museums, to "piggyback" on the city's low electric rates;

Leasing office space to Fort Worth Sister Cities, whose funding was pared to zero in the 2013 budget, at the "lowest possible rate" in the Tech Fort Worth/Guinn School Facility small business incubator.

Scott Nishimura,

817-390-7808

Twitter: @JScottNishimura

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