Culture Clash

Just as the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District celebrates its fifteenth anniversary, beneficiaries of its special sales tax are changing the way the money is distributed by bringing the Denver Center for the Performing Arts into the coveted top tier. In the process, they've left many smaller cultural organizations feeling shortchanged -- again.

"The whole thing is totally inequitable," says Patricio Córdova, an artist and former director of the Chicano Humanities and Arts Council. "Three of the four institutions in Tier I get more than all of the organizations in Tier III."

The SCFD was created in the 1980s to help Denver's "Big Four" cultural institutions -- the Denver Zoo, the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Museum of Natural History (now Nature & Science) and the Denver Botanic Gardens -- raise money after the local economy tanked and $2 million in state funding dried up. A trustee at the DAM suggested that a special sales-tax district could replace the lost dollars; other nonprofits heard about the agreement and cried foul until the "greedy Gang of Four" agreed to include them in their plans. But when they learned that their share of the tax money amounted to a pittance, they vocally opposed the district and successfully defeated the legislation needed to create one. It wasn't until the Big Four increased the smaller groups' allowance in 1987 that the bill finally passed, and voters approved the tax three to one the following year.

Since then, residents in the Denver metro area have paid an additional 0.1 percent on retail purchases, bringing in more than $30 million a year for almost 300 organizations. But despite the district's being lauded as a success from coast to coast, smaller groups still say the funding formula is unfair, allowing the rich to get richer while they struggle for scraps in an ever-increasing pool of organizations ("Culture Clash," April 26, 2001).

The money is doled out based on a tier structure in which the Big Four receive 59 percent of the revenue, or $19.3 million; the twenty groups in Tier II, which must each have at least $914,000 in annual operating revenue, split 28 percent, or $9.2 million; and the 268 smaller groups in Tier III, which have to apply to their counties' cultural councils annually for grants, share the remaining 13 percent, or $4.3 million.

And now, with the DCPA finally being promoted from Tier II to Tier I (it brings in more visitors and more revenue each year than the art museum and botanic gardens combined), the budget is just getting tighter. "I don't oppose that," insists José Aguayo, a trustee for the Museo de las Américas, a Tier III group that's been struggling financially. "I thought from the beginning that the DCPA should be in Tier I. The point is that the district should be more fair. Nowhere in this reauthorization has there been an effort to lay out for the voters how the district works."

To make way for the DCPA, the SCFD board had to restructure the revenue allocation, giving Tier I 65.5 percent of the proceeds, decreasing Tier II's intake to 21 percent and increasing Tier III's share by half a percentage point. "It really should be inverted, with the bulk of the money going to the smaller organizations," Aguayo adds. "At the very least, it should be divided three ways."

That's not likely to happen, though, since the SCFD believes that the big organizations should get the big money because they contribute more to the local economy than the smaller groups. "Will someone from out of town really travel to South Arapahoe County to see a neighborhood arts center?" asks SCFD administrator Mary Ellen Willams. "The fact is, the SCFD works really well the way it's structured."

The legislature has to approve the changes before voters decide in 2004 whether to extend the sales tax for another twelve years. Right now, there's no organized opposition to the updated distribution formula. In fact, Tier II groups voted last week to support the changes.

"The smaller groups are intimidated because the big guys tell them that if they oppose them, they risk losing everything for all the groups," Aguayo says.

"It's been a very good strategy," Córdova adds. "But what's the good of keeping quiet when all it does is censor people and get them out of the equation?"

And most Tier III groups -- at least officially -- support the changes. "When you look at all the organizations and their impact on the community, it's a very fair plan," says Kathy Brantigan, a Tier III spokeswoman and executive director of the Denver Brass. "A week ago, I sent out the new reauthorization proposal to the Tier III groups, and the feedback I've gotten has all been positive. I do think there are some internal issues within Tier III that can be addressed with the Denver County Cultural Council."

In particular, the groups would like to abolish the $35,000 cap that Denver's council places on Tier III organizations, since other counties don't have such limits. "If you line up all SCFD organizations from biggest to smallest, on average they get 17 to 18 percent of their budget from the SCFD," Brantigan says. "But if you're one of the largest in Tier III in Denver County, you get only 3 to 4 percent of your budget with that cap."

The cap was created to prevent the tier structure inequity that concerns Aguayo and others. Córdova, who used to sit on the council that administers grants to Denver's Tier III groups, says the committee wanted to ensure that enough money would be available for fledgling groups rather than having it all disbursed to the bigger, more established ones, such as the Denver Brass.

Brantigan suspects the real controversy with the SCFD reauthorization won't revolve around how the funds are distributed, but rather how much is gathered, since the proposal expands the district's boundaries. When the SCFD was created, the perimeter was aligned with RTD's tax district. A lot has changed since 1988, and SCFD members now want the district to grow to include parts of Douglas County, particularly Park Meadows mall and the Prime Factory Outlets in Castle Rock. That change would mean significantly increased revenues, but also a tax increase, which always generates opposition.

In the meantime, though, metro Denver's cultural organizations will be celebrating the taxpayer support they've been getting for fifteen years with a series of free community events.

Aguayo just hopes that when taxpayers vote in 2004, they'll understand exactly what they're voting for. "If they agree to reauthorize the legislation knowing all the facts, okay," he says. "But I'm convinced that if they knew all the facts, they wouldn't be happy."

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon