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Kansas City Budget Prompts Debate on Art as Commerce Pitched Funding Fight for Arts and Culture

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Above image credit: Director Morgan Cooper on a film set. (Contributed | Morgan Cooper)
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4 minute read

The old adage about “robbing Peter to pay Paul” has gotten a workout in recent weeks, ever since Kansas City’s proposed $1.73 billion budget was released in February.

Accusations about priorities, values and intentions have flown as residents flooded three public hearings to voice opinions on how their tax dollars should be spent.

Much of the focus has been on restoring funding for three areas targeted for cuts – the arts, small business development and assistance for tenants with unscrupulous landlords.

The arts in particular have enjoyed a vocal constituency of supporters, many with significant social capital. Those programs seemingly have garnered a reprieve from Mayor Quinton Lucas.

But the mayor’s new offer, when fully examined, further illustrates the challenge now before the City Council, which must approve the budget by March 26. There’s only so much money available, and restoring funding for one program comes at the expense of another.

The Kansas City Film Office offers a perfect example.

Lucas, in a tweeted letter, offered $200,000 to restore the Film Office, which had been slated for a $175,000 reduction. But those funds would come from Visit KC, which helps promote the city through convention and tourism.

“The public had a very good point,” Lucas said, noting many comments about subsidies given to developers limiting what is left for city services, or for supporting cultural endeavors. “When we give abatements, we are taking from the programs that we’ve cut.”

Notably, though, the Film Office operates under Visit KC’s marketing and communications. So the olive branch from Lucas essentially requires the umbrella office to do with less, to fund one of its programs.

Visit KC acknowledged the situation.

“We are still in those conversations with the city right now to work out the details,” said Toni Alexander, communications manager for Visit KC.

In 2019, Visit KC reported the Film Office had worked with 210 film projects, generating an estimated economic impact of $10.2 million. Until 2014, the Film Commission had operated through volunteers.

Another big driver in the public debate was how much return will be reaped for taxpayer investment.

Kevin Willmott, an Oscar-winning director and screenwriter based in Lawrence, recently told Flatland: “Unfortunately, you can’t make films when you don’t have a really attractive tax incentive… Let’s accept the realities of how film works.”

His views were echoed by fellow filmmaker Morgan Cooper, whose work has drawn accolades from Will Smith and many other Hollywood notables.

Cooper, who grew up in Grandview, Martin City and Lee’s Summit, said the proposed budget cuts to the arts can quickly become personal. “It really undercuts so many people doing amazing work in the film community here,” Cooper said.

Cooper is an example of how early local support can yield financial returns to Kansas City, such as his partnership with actor Gabrielle Union to produce a series set locally.

Film projects that qualify for a city budget-funded rebate spend $14 in Kansas City for every $1 they receive, according to Visit KC. Recent examples include two seasons of “Queer Eye,” “American Ninja Warrior” and production companies filming commercials.

In the last five years, Visit KC reported that $139,809 in film production tax rebates issued by the city generated qualified spending with the city totalling $1.94 million.

Another concern for the arts community was the fate of city funding for the three-person staff of the Office of Culture and Creative Services. It was formed in 2015 following then-Mayor Sly James’ Task Force on the Arts, which developed an Arts Convergence Plan that was adopted by the council. 

The Office of Culture and Creative Services administered the Neighborhood Tourist Development Fund, and supervised programs like Micro-Loans for Artists, West Bottoms Reborn, Charlotte Street Neighborhood Artists Residency and Open Spaces 2018.

Office of Culture and Creative Services staff also assisted the Film Office in managing financial incentives to attract film, television and new media productions to the city through the Film Development Program.

Some observers suggest such possible overlap provided a rationale for cuts or consolidation. Yet many felt blindsided by the proposed budget cuts.

The backlash against proposed cuts sometimes pitted differing interests against each other. Many people who spoke at public hearings about the budget made a point of voicing support for initiatives like fare-free bus service, an office to help renters hold landlords accountable and investment in the early guidance of entrepreneurs.

Then, they’d pitch full force for something else entirely.

Lucas, in an interview after the last hearing, pointed to the tax abatements offered to the new Loews Kansas City Convention Center Hotel as one culprit for the city’s limited funding. The budget must plug a $4.4 million financial shortfall for the hotel project involving catering and management contracts agreed to by the city when it first negotiated with Loews.

Going forward, Lucas said, the city must do better in gauging the long-term impact of such abatements, taking care to not undercut dedicated taxes such as the hotel-motel sales tax revenue.

Lucas denied an accusation that he wants to do away with programs put in place by his predecessor, James.

Others at the public hearings questioned solely blaming tax incentives, arguing that they see plenty of less worthy areas in the budget, programs and services that could be cut for the benefit of other initiatives.

Money used to maintain golf courses was cited in disparaging terms by a few during the last public hearing, which drew an overflow crowd pack into a health department auditorium over an extended noon hour.

At the hearing, a single mother of three told of her $500-a-month apartment that she said was infested with mice. How did she know? The vermin chewed through the breast pump she used to feed her child.

Many in the audience, and the panel of city council members, visibly shuddered. The mother was one of many in recent weeks who testified in support of KC Tenants and their desire to see $1.2 million to fund a division of housing and community development, including the creation of an Office of Tenant Advocate, arguing that the council authorized it when it passed the Tenants Bill of Rights.

The group’s yellow t-shirts were in full effect with community organizer Diane Charity commenting that about 50 of their advocates had shown up to testify.

Far fewer were allowed to speak.

Councilwoman Katheryn Shields attempted to maintain a brisk pace at the public hearings, asking for raised hands to determine how many people had gathered to address various topics before getting started.

Shields gave a stern reprimand after several people who had been heard from during previous hearings stepped up to take a turn.

“If you’ve spoken before, don’t,” she said. “If you’re going to speak about a topic we’ve heard before, don’t.”

But the efforts to double-dip, along with the lines of people waiting a turn at the microphone provided ample evidence that Kansas Citians care deeply about how their tax dollars will be spent in the fiscal year that begins May 1.

Mary Sanchez is a Kansas City-based writer.

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