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December 10, 2008

Slash and burn

The city’s budget crunch will affect the arts, parks, roads and you

For actress Joy DeMichelle Moore, playing a lead role in “A Raisin in the Sun” is especially meaningful given the grim state of the economy.

“In this economic time, everybody can relate to the play,” says Moore, a Louisville native and alumna of Louisville’s Youth Performing Arts School. “It’s a show that is about economic hardships and dreams.”

The play has attracted record crowds since opening at Actors Theatre in November, perhaps because Louisville’s real economic troubles mirror the hardships portrayed in the fictional masterpiece.

“Often the arts are a place where people turn in a difficult economy,” says Jennifer Bielstein, spokeswoman for Actors Theatre. “With theater we inspire people, we challenge people, and we educate and entertain them; people need to see their stories told.”

But fewer stories will be told on stage in the coming months due to a projected $20 million deficit in the city’s budget, making the arts among the many casualties of Louisville’s worst economic crisis in decades. In addition to slashing its contribution to the arts, Metro government is cutting back funding for a long list of nonessential organizations and trimming operations that will undoubtedly affect the public, like shutting down public libraries and community centers one day a week, eliminating road improvement projects this spring, and closing entire parks for the next six months.

But even after all this, the city still is nowhere near half of the shortfall, meaning more cutbacks are likely.

Mayor Jerry Abramson recently announced the city would cut its projected $1 million contribution to the arts by 50 percent. Now with a pool of barely $500,000, many arts groups are wondering what will be left for audiences and artists.

“We are trying to get through the end of the year without making cuts in programming,” says Marc Masterson, artistic director at Actors Theatre.

Actors serves more than 200,000 patrons annually with an average of 20 productions each season. Masterson says with only half of the 2008-2009 season complete, they’ve already spent most of the $70,000 the city originally pledged. Now, with only a $35,000 city contribution, the theater will have to eliminate marketing, leave staff positions unfilled and produce fewer and smaller shows.

With $10 million in its annual budget coming from various contributions, the theater is big enough to absorb the effect of Metro government reneging on its grant pledges. Other smaller arts groups, such as the West Louisville Talent Education Center Inc., rely on city funds and might not survive the cuts.

Masterson says continued cuts in public funding could have a ripple effect on all arts groups: “I want Louisville to know that it’s serious.”

Abramson’s decision to reduce arts funding was difficult, says Kerri Richardson, a spokeswoman in the mayor’s office.

“It’s a hard cut because we support the arts and think they’re important,” Richardson says. “It’s a tool to educate students and a quality of life signature for the city, but it’s one of those services that falls into the ‘it’s nice to do’ category.”

 

Abramson’s first round of cuts also includes eliminating street paving through June, saving the city more than $1 million.

Necessary maintenance to the roads, such as Metro government’s pothole program, snow plowing and road salting, is expected to continue through the winter.

Richardson tells LEO Weekly the mayor plans to announce the full breadth of the city’s budget cuts as soon as possible. However, with state cuts still pending from Frankfort and personnel costs still up in the air due to holdouts from union leaders, more drastic reductions in services remain on the table.

“This is an economic crisis unlike anything we’ve seen in decades,” she says. “Unfortunately, in order to meet our mandate to have a balanced city budget, some services are going to be affected.”

Another drastic measure is the Jan. 2 closure of Otter Creek Park for at least six months. The city owns the 2,600-acre scenic park in Meade County near Fort Knox, which costs Metro more than $1 million annually to operate.

Jason Cissell, a spokesman for Metro Parks, says department officials and the mayor’s office have discussed every option to save money with the least possible impact on the people who use city parks and recreational programs, but more cuts should be expected.

“There’s not a lot to trim without impacting services and facilities,” he says.

Closing community centers on Mondays, for instance, was weighed against closing them in certain neighborhoods entirely.

Metro Parks operates 16 community centers, mostly in west, south and southwest neighborhoods. Besides the Douglass Community Center in the Highlands, Cissell says no community center is further east. The impact of closing those facilities one day a week means eliminating programs for seniors and children who use them for gymnasium time and homework help.

“It will absolutely have an impact on any neighborhood with a community center, but less than closing the doors entirely,” he says.

All Metro department heads realize the mayor hasn’t cut nearly enough services to balance the $20 million shortfall. Cissell would not comment on what additional cuts to Metro Parks’ budget might mean, but says the choices are between bad and worse. He says knowing that some of those decisions will be based on what unionized employees in other departments are doing is unsettling.

“There’s been discussion that if the mayor can’t reach an agreement with some of those organizations, we know the alternative is to come back to us with additional cuts,” he says. “Looking at what else is left, there are only bad choices and we’re down to the really bad ones.”