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News: Fulton Commission, between “rock and hard place,” postpones decision on arts funding

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A decision on whether to trim a major chunk of funding from the Arts and Culture Department was delayed Wednesday as the Fulton County Board of Commissioners opted instead to give themselves a little more time to reach consensus.

“I’ve heard from many of you that we are not ready,” Chairman John Eaves said as discussions began. The board will reconvene next week at a time to be determined to go over a number of budget proposals. The budget has to be passed and approved by January 31, and the commissioners will meet and hash it all out before the special called meeting.

The proposed 2014 fiscal year budget calls for a decrease of over a $1 million in arts funding, down to $3.6 million. In addition to the potential 30 percent cut to the arts, Human Services is facing a severe cut, as are services to Grady Health System.

At times the conversation was contentious between the six-person commission and the Fulton County budget department, not only in terms of the number of proposed budgets but individual line-item entries. Commissioner Emma Darnell questioned a budget that would eliminate needed services to children and the elderly, as well as the arts, while Commissioner Robb Pitts later reminded the budget department that “this board has not voted to cut anything,” saying that cuts were their ideas.

More than two dozen individuals chose to speak in front the commissioners before the budget discussions began, approximately half of whom were arts administrators. Speakers included Horizon Theatre’s Lisa Adler, Theatrical Outfit’s Tom Key, the Center for Puppetry Arts’ Rainie Jueschke and Moving in the Spirit’s founder Dana Lupton, all urging the commissioners to restore the arts funding to the 2013 fiscal year levels. Adler, who says her theater reaches 40,000 patrons a year, stated that “cutting the arts will not eliminate your problem.” Gina Rickiki, development director of Dad’s Garage, said her theater hadn’t just grown artistically but had helped revitalize Inman Park. Michael Molina, a lawyer, performer and arts advocate, says the arts is what brought him to Atlanta five years ago and why he has stayed in the area.

Lisa Cremin, director of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund, also addressed the commissioners. Cremin cited impactful economic reasons to support the arts. Her statistics indicate that of the 100 most populated counties in the United States, Fulton County has the fourth-largest number of arts-related businesses behind only New York, San Francisco and Nashville; that Fulton has the third-highest number of jobs per capita in the country behind only New York and San Francisco; total revenues generated in 2011 in Fulton County was over $365 million; arts organizations in the county employed more than 24,000 people; and contracts for Fulton nonprofits represented a 150 million dollar industry.

Balancing it all and pleasing everyone will be tough. Commissioner Joan Garner, who expressed her support of arts funding at a similar meeting last August in which Fulton County weighed cuts, says the commission faces a tough decision. “We are between a rock and a hard place,” she said, saying the commissioners might have to choose between either raising taxes or cutting programs such as the arts. “It’s like cutting bone now.”

Garner did urge her colleagues to heed those who had spoken in favor of jeopardized services.

Before the next meeting, commissioners will have to weigh at least four current budget scenarios and two that were presented last year. If needed, the commission can choose to use reserve funds if they feel that option is needed.

Eaves promised a quick resolution, one that he hopes will be in the best interest of most everyone.

“We are all over the place,” admitted Eaves, “but we will find a consensus.”

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