All in all, it has not been a great month for the Surry Arts Council (SAC) in Mount Airy where support from city government is concerned.
The arts group initially was faced with a proposed 50% cut in an annual budget allocation by the municipality to support SAC operations, which benefit tourism locally, only to see the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners restore that funding.
This occurred on June 11 when the board approved the 2020-21 city budget, including the full yearly appropriation sought by the Surry Arts Council of $87,500.
But during the same meeting the city council decided 3-2, with Mayor David Rowe casting a tie-breaking vote, to withhold $800,000 million in special city funding earlier designated for the SAC over a five-year period totaling $1 million. That money was voted on last September to aid the construction of a $4 million multi-purpose art center containing a Siamese Twins museum.
This occurred before three new members, elected in November, joined the city Board of Commissioners, which has five altogether. Those in office in September acknowledged they could not commit the “new” board to that level of funding, although this was encouraged.
Officials said they had authority to make allocations from only the present, 2019-20 fiscal year budget that was adopted under their tenure — a total of $200,000 representing the first-year installment of the five-year plan.
Earlier during 2019, in February, the commissioners had approved a separate $100,000 allocation to assist with planning and architectural work for the new arts center eyed for municipal property near Blackmon Amphitheatre.
And with this fiscal year nearing its end on Tuesday, there has now been some resistance among the present board to even provide the $200,000 approved by its predecessor group, specified for design and construction-related costs of the facility.
A prevailing 4-1 vote to officially provide that allocation, coming during the commissioners’ last meeting on June 18, reflected respect for the “old” board’s decision last year, based on discussion at the meeting.
Yet Commissioner Ron Niland, the lone dissenter in the vote, said he was more focused on the city’s present financial status, a position that triggered heavy debate among the commissioners.
Much has changed since last September, pointed out Niland, a former Mount Airy city manager who became a commissioner in December. Most notable is the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in recent months, which has caused uncertainties for key city revenue sources including sales taxes.
Niland said he is concerned about Mount Airy’s financial picture in both the short and long term, including wondering where the money would come from for the SAC. He would have voted in favor of a 2-cent hike in the property tax rate for the 2020-21 fiscal year in order to supply the $200,000, Niland disclosed.
Instead, it will come from the city’s fund balance — which also has been referred to as its savings, or surplus — through a budget amendment included in the 4-1 decision.
Niland said he was troubled by this and other recent actions tapping into that source, which has included money for the Spencer’s redevelopment project on former textile property now owned by the municipality.
“At what point are we going to stop spending money out of our fund balance that we can’t afford?” he remarked. “The day of reckoning is coming.”
Niland added that he is troubled by what might happen “if we don’t stop our spending soon.”
At a budget workshop earlier in June, a report was presented showing the city’s unassigned fund balance for 2019-20 to be $7.4 million, which represents 62.1% of its annual expenditures — viewed as a healthy level.
In contrast, in April 2008 the Department of the State Treasurer wrote a letter to Mount Airy when its fund balance had decreased to $2.9 million after a massive round of annexations, representing about 25% of total general fund expenditures. The letter stated that this percentage was “much lower” than for comparable municipalities across North Carolina.
“This is not about the arts council,” Niland said at the recent meeting. “This is about fiscal responsibility.”
Respecting past commitment
Other board members took a different position that focused on honoring the wishes of officials in 2019.
“This is living up to a commitment the previous board made,” said Commissioner Tom Koch, also one of the three new members, who added that incoming ones undoing such decisions would be chaotic.
Koch’s opinion was shared by the board’s Steve Yokeley, who was part of the group that took the action in September.
“As far as I’m concerned, I think we’ve made this commitment,” Yokeley said of paying the $200,000.
“I don’t want to be the stumbling block with the $200,000,” agreed Commissioner Marie Wood, another new arrival, mentioning that a decision had been reached concerning that allocation. “Put it in the history book.”
However, Wood, a retired accountant, suggested that city officials think long and hard about such funding commitments in the future — “before we get ourselves in these situations.”
Earlier during the same meeting, the Surry Arts Council had been dealt another setback when the commissioners voted 3-2 to reject its initial site plan for the new building, This was in response to the plan calling for 11 parking spaces at the Mount Airy Public Library to be sacrificed as part of the project.
Commissioner Jon Cawley, who voted for that plan and also the $200,000 allocation, said he was concerned about the impact of negative decisions on local tourism in general and the SAC in specific with its events drawing needed tourists.
Cawley indicated that this was part of a pattern of bad decisions by city officials.
“And I think the way we’re treating the Surry Arts Council is another huge mistake.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.