Stage set for cultural funding fight among Denver, Aurora, metro institutions


AURORA | Beneficiaries of tax dollars from Colorado’s Scientific and Cultural Facilities District are staging a behind-the-scenes struggle over how to divvy up the millions given to arts and cultural groups across the Front Range.

Two groups offering separate SCFD budget proposals gave presentations to Aurora’s Federal, State and Intergovernmental Relations Committee Oct. 8 in an attempt to sell their allocation breakdowns and receive the city’s seal of approval.

Chaired by At-Large Councilwoman Barb Cleland, the FSIR Committee voted to move discussion of SCFD funding to a council study session. The committee failed to back one proposed structure over the other, though city staff has suggested the city support the plan of the SCFD board in an effort to avoid confusion.

“If it gets contentious in the Legislature, then that could be a real issue, especially going forward next November,” Cleland said at the meeting. “SCFD could basically go belly up and it’s gone and then we’re all losers. The hope is we don’t get there.”

At least four different groups are circulating individual funding proposals that explore different ways in which to dice about $52 million that SCFD annually dispenses to a ballooning crop of more than 300 cultural entities.

At issue is who gets what slice of a growing pie. Currently, SCFD money — which is collected through a one-cent tax on every $10 spent in a seven county region — is split between 304 cultural organizations. Those groups  are divided into three tiers: Tier I, Tier II and Tier III.

Since the original statute was passed by voters in 1988, the bulk of the pot — 65.5 percent in 2014 — has gone to “the big five” Denver organizations that make up Tier I. That group clustered in Downtown Denver is composed of: the Denver Art Museum, Denver Botanic Gardens, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and Denver Zoological Gardens.

Twenty-seven Tier II organizations split 21 percent of the $52 million total, and the final 13.5 percent is shared among the 272 outfits in Tier III. In dollars, that means about $11 million for Tier II and  $7 million for Tier III.

At least four different groups are circulating individual funding proposals that explore different ways in which to dice about $52 million that SCFD annually dispenses to a ballooning crop of more than 300 cultural entities.

The current SCFD formula will end in 2018 unless voters next year approve the funding for a fourth, 12-year term. The tax is expected to rake in about $87 million annually by 2030.

The recommendation from the SCFD board involves scaling percentages that change after $38 million is collected each year, with Tier I entities losing some of the total disbursements and Tiers II and III slightly gaining a bit of it. That plan was formulated by an SCFD task force this spring.

Since then, tensions regarding the crucial cultural dollars have mounted as more people have leapt into the debate over how to divide the tax revenues.

Shortly after the SCFD task force made its recommendation, a group of dozens of smaller cultural organizations deemed Friends of Arts & Culture Equity (FACE) shared its own funding plan, which calls for Tier I to receive 50 percent of the pot, Tier II to get 30 percent and Tier III be designated 20 percent.

Anthony Radich, executive director of the Western States Arts Federation in Denver, recently announced a proposal that calls for sliding percentages until 2038 when funds would be split evenly — 33.3 percent each — among the three tiers. Jerome Kern, president and CEO of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra also has penned a proposal.

Aurora’s sole Tier II entity is the city’s cultural services division, which acts as an umbrella for several city arts outposts including The Aurora Fox Arts Center. Cultural Services received $249,110.71 last year, according to the SCFD annual report. There are about a dozen Tier III organizations in the city.

When compared to the sums received by some Denver facilities — such as the nearly $9 million granted to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science — Aurora’s slim cut of the pot has long irked both artists and city officials alike. Craig Bond, executive Director of Aurora’s Vintage Theatre Productions — a Tier III organization — said he has a hard time accepting the fact that such a large portion of the SCFD funds are rooted in Denver, despite all three tiers attracting roughly the same number of patrons each year.

“What I struggle with is that so much of the funding leaves Arapahoe County and goes back to Denver-based organizations,” he said. “It just needs to be more equitable, because if we’re bringing in 33 percent of the attendance, we deserve more than 13.5 percent of the funding.”

At the FSIR meeting earlier this month, FACE reported that Aurora contributed $4,402,665 in sales tax to the SCFD last year, but received only $741,895 in Tier II and Tier III funding.

But all of the squabbling over swelling percentages could be for not if voters, or legislators, choose to axe the tax altogether in 2016.

That’s something Alice Lee Main, manager of Aurora’s cultural services department, fears is a viable, albeit deeply troubling, outcome.

“There’s a very good possibility that could happen because even though they’ve passed it three times, it doesn’t mean they’ll do it now,” Main said. “There are so many more people here than there were in 2004 (the last time the funding structure went to the ballot) and so many more people living in the seven county region that don’t have a clue what SCFD means. There’s always going to be that apprehension about making people understand that this is not a new tax, but just continuing the same thing that has been in place.”

The issue is on the agenda for the SCFD board’s meeting at 1 p.m. Oct. 22 at the Butterfly Pavilion, but a decision is not expected this week.

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7 years ago

I do not believe for one second that Aurorahas an equal number of patrons. Every decent show is at Denver Center. Many Broadway shows, Opera Colorado, Denver Symphony, just to name a few. Aurora has the pathetic Fox Theater, a pitiful museum, once occupied by Municipal Court, and a bunch of crummy little theaters along E. Colfax. Aurora will never be able to offer anything even close.