Should cultural projects get any revenue from proposed sales tax hike?

Rena Blades, president of the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County, is expected to urge county commissioners to include funding for the arts when they consider sales tax plans Tuesday.

“There are models all over the U.S. of communities investing public funds into these types of projects at museums, theaters, zoos, history centers etc.,” Blades wrote in an email to The Palm Beach Post. “Why would counties and cities invest this way? Because of the return on the investment in audience spending, business recruitment, and the benefits that come with a great quality of life.”

County commissioners on Tuesday are going to discuss ways to raise new revenue for completing work that was neglected during the economic downturn — repairing roads, bridges and buildings. And County Administrator Verdenia Baker has said she will recommend the commission put a proposed sales tax increase on the ballot.

Increasing the county’s sales tax rate from 6 cents on the dollar to 6½ cents would net $1.2 billion over 10 years. Increasing the rate to 7 cents on the dollar would raise $2.6 billion in revenue, but that amount probably would be split with the School Board, as county and school district officials are discussing the possibility of joining forces on the 1-cent increase.

Sharing money with the arts community would depend on the county’s cities voluntarily giving up at least some of the sales tax revenue to which they are entitled under state law. Whatever tax rate is chosen, the county must share about 40 percent of its cut with the county’s 38 municipalities, based the proportion of their populations to the county’s overall.

City officials aren’t high on that prospect.

Some commissioners have also raised questions about whether including arts projects will decrease the chances that voters will approve a sales tax referendum.

And there are questions about the role of the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County, which has been active in sales-tax-increase discussions by both the county School Board and the County Commission.

The Cultural Council’s ideas were the starting point for discussions held Wednesday by the School Board, which directed Superintendent Robert Avossa to explore teaming up with the county for a joint pitch.

The council — which offers grants to arts and cultural organizations — depends on private funds as well as public money from the county and from the tourist development tax. It has allowed reporters to attend its meetings, but it considers itself a private entity that is not covered by the Florida Public Records Act unless records requests deal with issues tied to the public funds it receives.

In conducting work that could affect its recommendations on the expenditure of public funds, the Cultural Council has used private funds and third parties, which aren’t subject to public records requests.

One museum director said the Cultural Council has not been helpful to small arts institutions and worries that sales tax funds will be directed to large, well-known institutions that don’t need as much financial help as their smaller brethren.

“They have a system set up to help wealthy organizations stay wealthy,” said Lori Durante, executive director of the Museum of Lifestyle and Fashion History, which used to have floor space in Delray Beach and Boynton Beach. “It’s economic discrimination is what I call it. What you have to do for one, you have to do for all.”

But Blades said the Cultural Council uses a clear, “competitive peer reviewed grant process” to determine which institutions qualify for its assistance.

“And to my knowledge her organization has never applied for these funds,” Blades said of Durante.

Baker, who has said she’s open to having arts projects funded with sales tax money, said most arts and cultural institutions would have to raise private funds before they would be eligible to receive sales tax money. Projects in the Glades, which has struggled economically, could receive full funding from sales tax money, Baker said.

During Wednesday’s School Board meeting, board members also seemed open to paying for arts projects with money from a sales tax increase.

“When we think about academic improvement for all of our children, we have to think of the arts,” said School Board member Marcia Andrews, who had high praise for the breadth of the Cultural Council’s work, including its work in the Glades.

County Commissioner Paula Burdick, a previous Cultural Council board member, said the organization does “a wonderful job.”

But that doesn’t mean it will be an easy call to use sales tax money on arts projects, she said.

“For me, in general, my philosophy has been that’s not my money we’re working with,” Burdick said. “It’s the public’s money. We should do what we absolutely have to do.”

Commissioner Priscilla Taylor agreed.

“Obviously, culture has its place,” she said, “but my main priority is the infrastructure of the county. My main thing is getting our infrastructure straightened out.”

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