Four-month interim agreement approved on 4-1 vote
On Sept. 12, Sarasota County Commissioner Michael Moran pulled an item from the board’s Consent Agenda of routine business matters to seek his colleagues’ cooperation in deferring a discussion of it until a later date.
That item involved the county’s 2024 fiscal year agreement with the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County. As the Scope of Services section of that agreement explained, the Alliance promotes to the county’s arts organizations the annual grant program that the county’s
“bed tax” revenue funds. The 6% bed tax is charged on rentals of accommodations for six months or less time; a certain percentage is dedicated to those grants, which pay for arts and cultural programs that are anticipated to draw more tourists to the community.
The Alliance organizes a panel each year that vets the grant applications and recommends which programs to fund, plus the corresponding amounts, based on the available bed tax — or, formally, Tourist Development Tax — revenue.
The Scope of Services also calls for the Alliance to promote Sarasota County as Florida’s Cultural Coast. That effort includes the publication of the annual Guide to Florida’s Cultural Coast and a yearly report on the economic impact of the arts on county tourism.
For the 2024 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, the Alliance was to receive $273,500.
However, Commissioner Moran made it clear to his colleagues on Sept. 12 that he was including the Alliance among other county advisory boards that he has targeted in an effort — as he has explained it — to ensure that they are making the best use of taxpayer money. (His leadership of the reorganization of the funding of human services programs in the county also was in the proverbial spotlight during the commission’s Sept. 12 meeting.)
“This is an advisory board in my mind,” Moran said of the Alliance that day, “and this is a significant amount of money” for the agreement.
He added that he wanted county staff to look “a little deeper” into the Alliance’s work. The delay in approving a new agreement, Moran said, would be worthwhile to ensure “there’s an absolute rational nexus to the taxpayer dollars that are going into that organization …”
Although Moran asked for consensus to delay the action on the agreement, County Attorney Joshua Moye said a motion would be preferable. Therefore, Moran made a motion to defer the discussion to a later date, and Commissioner Neil Rainford seconded it. Only Commissioner Mark Smith voted “No.”
The discussion was delayed until Oct. 24. That day, Moran was the only board member who declined to support a four-month, interim funding agreement with the Alliance until a more detailed discussion is conducted in January 2024 about the county’s relationship with the nonprofit.
The economic impact of the arts
On the morning of Oct. 24, during the Open to the Public period of the County Commission meeting in downtown Sarasota, Brian Hersh, the Alliance’s new CEO, stepped to the podium to provide a bit of history and to talk about a new survey.
Since 1988, he said, a portion of the county’s Tourist Development Tax revenue has been dedicated to supporting arts and cultural events. Further, he pointed out, for more than 30 years, the Alliance has partnered with county government “to ensure that this is a vibrant arts community …”
Then he told the board members that a 2022 national survey undertaken by the nonprofit Americans for the Arts — focusing on more than 300 communities — continued to rank Sarasota County high in terms of the arts’ impact on the economy.
In the 2022 fiscal year, he said, the County Commission awarded $1.67 million for arts and cultural organizations’ programming. The survey showed that the total economic impact of the arts in the county that fiscal year was $342 million. That included expenditures of the arts and cultural organizations themselves on employees, supplies and sets, for examples, he noted. It also took into account the money that visitors who come to the county for arts and cultural programming spend while they are in the community.
Following Hersh to the podium, Peter Rothstein, the new producing artistic director of the Asolo Repertory Theatre, pointed out that he has just been in the community three-and-a-half months, having relocated from the Twin Cities in Minnesota, where he built a theater company.
“There is something truly remarkable about Sarasota County,” Rothstein said, adding that he could not think of another community of comparable size in the United states that has “this number of world-class arts organizations …”
Yet, he continued, “The arts are in a vulnerable time.” The recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic has taken longer than anticipated, he said, and organizations are contending with inflation and cost-of-housing issues.
“We need your support more than ever,” he told the commissioners.
The ’deeper dive’
Later on Oct. 24, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), explained that, since Sept. 12, staff had worked with representatives of the Alliance to revise the proposed agreement, including its Scope of Services and budget, for the 2024 fiscal year. As a result, she said, staff recommended a phased approach.
First, she asked that the commissioners approve an agreement with the organization that would be retroactive to Oct. 1 and then end on Jan. 31, 2024.
Among the changes proposed in the full 2024 fiscal year agreement, if the board members were to approve it, are as follows:
- The Alliance could not spend more than $109,100 of the funding it receives from the county to produce materials promoting the arts and cultural programming in the full 2024 fiscal year. Rissler noted that the nonprofit could spend up to a third of that amount through Jan. 31, 2024.
- The Alliance would have up to $56,400 to spend on the grant programming process for the 2024 fiscal year.
- It would be limited to spending no more than $108,000 to implement the 2025 fiscal year arts and cultural grants program.
Finally, Rissler noted, provided that the commissioners approve the new guidelines for the Alliance that they will discuss at more length in January, staff would ask that the commission allow County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to extend the agreement with the Alliance through Sept. 30, 2024.
If the commissioners voted in January 2024 not to allow the Alliance to receive county funding beyond Jan. 31, 2024, then the agreement would be terminated, she said.
Commissioner Neil Rainford asked for clarification that the Alliance has been working without an agreement with the county.
“That’s correct,” Rissler replied.
When he then asked what the county would be paying for through Jan. 31, 2024, if the commissioners accepted PRNR’s recommendations that day, Rissler told him that the Alliance could request reimbursements — up to the designated amounts — for work such as publishing its annual Guide to Florida’s Cultural Coast and overseeing organizations’ use of the FY 2024 programming grants that the commission approved on July 12.
Then Rainford held up a document that was produced by the Alliance, asking how much that cost.
Brian Hersh, the Alliance CEO, explained that the booklet Rainford was holding provides information about the economic impact of the arts on Sarasota County. It was produced in-house, Hersh added, but it had not been distributed. Nonetheless, he said, this is the time of year that the Alliance normally would start making it available to the public.
The Alliance staff also has been working on the annual cultural guide, Hersh noted. That is ready to be printed and then distributed.
“Who does that go to?” Rainford asked.
“That’s distributed broadly across the community,” Hersh replied. In partnership with Sarasota Magazine and Visit Sarasota County — the county’s tourism office — the Alliance ensures that hotels and arts organizations get copies of it. Moreover, Hersh said, a digital version is available online for people to view as they consider making plans to come to the county.
“So that’s already been printed?” Commissioner Moran asked of the document Rainford had held up. “What if we say, ‘No’ here today” to a four-month agreement with the Alliance?
Then the Alliance would be responsible for covering the expense, Hersh indicated.
Addressing Rissler, Moran pointed out that the commissioners had been dealing with other county advisory boards. “They say they’re not dependent on us,” he continued, “but I am deeply concerned that they are very dependent on us.”
Moran asked Rissler, “Did we give authorization for them to print that [document Rainford was holding]?”
She responded that county staff did not take such action. However, referencing Hersh’s comments, she added, “They have a timeline” for promoting the full season of arts and cultural programming, “and they were well into the process of developing those guides” when Moran in September requested the delay in voting on the FY 2024 agreement.
Rainford asked how much of the $342 million in economic impact comes from people who travel to the county for arts and cultural programming.
The 2022 Americans for the Arts survey showed that 47% of the audience members at the productions the county funded that year were from out of the county, Hersh replied. The national average is 30%, he emphasized.
When Rainford asked how the Americans for the Arts arrived at that figure, Hersh told him that audience members self-report where they live.
Moran complained that a Manatee County resident who drives to Sarasota for a performance would be considered an out-of-towner for the purpose of the survey.
The goal of the programming that the county funds, Hersh said, is to put “heads in beds,” as tourism officials say: bringing visitors to the county who will stay overnight and spend money on accommodations, meals and perhaps retail purchases.
“I’d be interested in seeing that [survey] data,” Commissioner Joe Neunder told Hersh. “At least in my mind,” Neunder continued, “there might be a couple of things here that we are currently funding that I don’t think that our taxpayers are willing to [fund].”
Hersh promised to send the commissioners the full survey results.
“When I see this $342 million,” Rainford said, “I get a little suspicious that there are people that are already here using our great arts community. … I would really love to see us really target the tourist side of this.”
When Neunder sought clarification from Rissler that the commissioners could refuse in January 2024 to extend the agreement with the Alliance, she assured him that that was correct.
Commissioner Smith pointed out, “Those of us that have grown up here and lived here a good deal of time have appreciated Sarasota County’s strong arts background. … It’s important that we continue to encourage the arts” and promote the programming.”
If the board members were to end the relationship with the Alliance, Smith cautioned, then the county likely would have to hire more staff to handle the work. Yet, Smith noted, the Alliance staff members already are experts on that type of work.
Smith made the motion to extend the agreement with the Alliance through Jan. 31, 2024, and Chair Ron Cutsinger seconded it.
The vote was 4-1, with Moran opposing the four months of funding.