Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cultural affairs funding in Dallas and the city's Office of Cultural Affairs are two separate issues

Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm and District 3 council member Dave Neumann at the townhall meeting Neumann jointly sponsored with District 1 council member Delia Jasso Thursday night.

If an inter-galactic alien who had been briefed on Dallas before leaving its planet landed somewhere in the city and mistakenly wandered into a budget town hall meeting, the poor thing would scratch that part of its body that housed its thinking and reasoning mechanisms and go "Geez, I thought this was football country. What's all this talk about cultural affairs?"

And that would be a legitimate question because the further north in the city one of these townhall meetings is held the more likely it will be occupied by 30 or so folks who have been programmed to be so upset about the city manager's proposed budget concerning cultural affairs that they can't get their souffles to rise. And they can make it sound like hundreds and thousands of people will poor from their homes and descend upon city hall unless something is done about it. These folks are upset because (1) the spigot has been turned off the faucet from which pours tax monies flowing to various arts organizations and (2) the Office of Cultural Affairs (I wonder how many people in Dallas know that this office is located in the Majestic Theater?) is being merged with the Library Department.

I would estimate about 80 persons came to the Hitt Auditorium in Methodist Hospital Thursday night for a budget townhall meeting jointly sponsored by District 3 council member Dave Neumann (not so much an ally of the cultural affairs folks) and freshman District 2 council member Delia Jasso (who seemed to lend a more sympathetic ear to their arguments). Now 30 people in a room of 80 can seem like a significant number. But here's the real numbers: Those 30 people probably represent 100 percent of the people in a district passionate about this issue.

Follow along with me here while I play with some numbers. Let's say there's roughly 1.2 million people in the city of Dallas. That, of course, is not an exact figure, but it's close enough for the point I want to make. The city is divided into 14 council districts, each of which is supposed to contain an equal number of people. That means each council person represents roughly 86,000 persons. So now you have 30 people who really care about the future of cultural affairs and 85,970 who don't, or, in the case of the joint meeting last night, 30 defenders of the arts and 171,970 folks who think cultural affairs are what Jennifer Aniston engages in.

So how is all this going to play out? I have attended about a half-dozen of these town hall meetings during this current budget cycle and I have had talks with elected officials, those on the city staff and "interested third parties." What I have been able to piece together is that on the first issue -- funding the Office of Cultural Affairs doled out to arts groups around the city -- much of that is probably going to be saved IF (and I put that "if" in capital letters because it is, indeed a major "if') private investors can be found to kick in around 50 percent of the needed money. In political jargon, this is called "matching funds" -- Sam's Dairy agrees to donate $10,000 on condition that the City matches that amount. It's done all the time -- the Police Department receives a lot of grant money in the form of matching funds. One of the speakers at Thursday night's townhall meeting made the case for a small arts program she was running in Oak Cliff not that far from where the Jasso-Neumann gathering was taking place and she painted a vivid picture of a cultural alternative of the argument being made on behalf of the city's recreation centers.

What I think is going to happen is that, as the city council gets closer to voting on the final budget, City Manager Mary Suhm is going to perform another one of her Annual Miracles and inform the council that most, if not all, of the cultural affairs programs funded in the current budget will be funded again next fiscal year through matching funds.

That leaves the completely separate, largely cosmetic issue of what's going to happen to the Office of Cultural Affairs. It won't remain a stand-alone department. It will be merged with the Library Department and the position of director of the Office of Cultural Affairs will become an assistant director. The consensus of those I have talked to is that the only issue left to be resolved is whether the words "cultural affairs" will be part of the new department; i.e.
will it be called the Department of Library Services and Cultural Affairs. That is viewed as a good compromise by everyone except those in the Library Department who view Cultural Affairs somewhat like an adopted stepsister with leprosy.

So here's my prediction for cultural affairs in the upcoming budget: Funding for most, if not all, of the cultural affairs programs will be salvaged, and the Office of Cultural Affairs will become part of the Library Department. This not going to satisfy the Noisy 30, but those 85,970 other folks in each of the 14 council districts can join our inter-galactic alien visitor in knowing that cultural affairs means seeing George Strait in the same stadium as the Dallas Cowboys, Bruce Springsteen in concert, Dancing With the Stars or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

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