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Cutting Vero’s budget by squeezing theatre, museum

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER - STAFF WRITER (Week of August 5, 2010)

Instead of cutting into its bloated, well-paid top staff, the City of  Vero Beach trimmed its budget this year by off-loading nearly $32,000 in landscaping, lawn maintenance and irrigation water onto two of Vero’s cultural icons, the Vero Beach Museum of Art and Riverside Theatre.

While the Board of County Commissioners cut $100 million or about 28 percent from its budget to keep taxes low, Vero has proposed cutting only about 4.8 percent and, as it has for years, using dollars from utility bills to balance the books.

Those are just some of the choices the City Council has agreed to for the 2011 budget presented by outgoing City Manager Jim Gabbard. The budget also leaves the city’s electric, water and sewer utilities with only a tiny amount of operating cash squirreled away in case something breaks or the fund encounters some other difficulty.

Instead of building up that rainy-day fund, the city chooses to continue transferring about $11 million to support the operations of non-utility departments and to pay upper management.

Most of the cuts in the proposal were made in the lower-paid, lower-skilled positions in the public works, solid waste, water and sewer and the recreation staff.

By comparison, staffing at the electric utility, the City Clerk’s Office, the City Attorney’s Office, Finance, Administration, Human Resources and the City Manager’s office remain unscathed.

In fact, the budget for the City Attorney’s office increased by almost $40,000 -- nearly $24,000 in salaries and more than $15,000 in pension contributions for the four full-time and one part-time employee in the department.

The Vero Beach Museum of Art and Riverside Theatre occupy city land leased to the nonprofits on a long-term basis. Maintenance of the land adjacent to Riverside Park has been seen over the years as part of the taxpayers’ contribution to the cultural arts. The museum and the theater are two of the things that make up the quality of life that Vero Beach residents enjoy.

John’s Island Resident Dick Stark, who chaired the Board of Directors of the museum when it built the current, expanded facility and who is a major benefactor of the theater, said he was surprised that the city could go back on a promise it had made to maintain the property.

“It’s city land, after all and we built the buildings, built them for the community, it’s seems like they’re (reneging) on a deal,” he said. “

“I don’t know how you balance these things and I don’t know how bad a shape the budget is in, but these amenities are such an enhancement to the community,” he said. “It’s hard to believe that they’re not being supported more aggressively by the city. It’s a shame to me, but I don’t know what other options there were.”

Though $21,600 for the theater and $9,500 for the museum doesn’t seem like a lot to absorb, these extra costs come on top of a year when both entities have been all but crippled by soaring electric rates. The museum must maintain a climate-controlled environment for the valuable art and the theatre must run the air-conditioning and high-wattage lighting for the shows it presents.  Both organizations also run summer camps and need to keep it cool for the kids.

The museum and the theater have also felt the economic crunch as many other nonprofits have, especially the past two years. Donors have had to prioritize their gifts and when this happens, often the basics -- food, shelter and children’s causes -- take the lion’s share of the limited philanthropic dollars to go around.

Organizations that deal in what’s seen as luxury items such as plays, musicals and artwork – non-profits which are seen by some as catering to the wealthy -- often don’t get the sympathy vote.

That’s exactly what happened on July 22 when the City Council voted to cut the landscaping services.

“We have ordinary citizens working to take money off their tables to pay for this,” Councilman Ken Daige said.

Daige noted that a lot of people who are struggling with job loss or other financial problems can’t afford to buy tickets to shows at Riverside Theatre. He suggested maybe some patrons with means could help the organizations cover the extra costs.

“They should see if they can do some sponsorships to get some help,” Daige said.

City Manager Jim Gabbard said the city had tried to end the landscaping subsidy to the two organizations but, “they just didn’t have the money, frankly,” he said.

Councilman Tom White said the council and staff have met much resistance from the two groups about taking responsibility for maintaining and watering the property leased from the city.

“We tried that last year and they laughed and said ‘No,’” White said.  “They laughed and said, ‘No, we can’t do it.”

Councilman Heady said it wasn’t right for the city to single out certain organizations for such free services.

“The City shouldn’t be doing these areas because they’re private property,” he said.

Mayor Kevin Sawnick agreed with the measure, saying that the city has had full right to charge for these services all along, and could therefore do so in the future.

The museum and the theater will need to find a private landscaping company to mow the grass, trim the trees, mulch the beds and do all the other maintenance. The organizations will also now be billed for the reuse water used to irrigate the property. The city estimated this cost to be about $5,300 per year.

Public Works Director Monte Falls said the issue about the maintenance and water costs comes up every year at budget time, but that in previous years the City Council has lacked the will to make the cuts.

Falls said the maintenance takes about one whole man-year to complete, meaning the number of hours that one full-time employee works in one year.

“As the years roll on out, things are going to be tighter,” Daige said.