Depending on who you ask, it’s either a boneheaded move or a very smart strategy.
Under a revised state law that goes into effect July 1, 3% of all hotel taxes collected in Annapolis will go to fund the city’s Arts in Public Places Commission. The move was orchestrated by the commission’s chair, Genevieve Torri, working in concert with state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation last year.
But Annapolis Alderwoman Elly Tierney says the “boneheaded move” to get a direct cut of hotel tax money came as a surprise to the City Council. She’s now sponsoring an ordinance to eliminate language from the city code that says the council will allocate funding for the commission.
The state legislation effectively triples the commission’s budget. During fiscal 2022, it received $67,500 from the city budget. But the hotel tax is likely to funnel more than $200,000 to the arts commission in fiscal 2023. In anticipation of the hotel tax disbursement, the City Council did not allocate any additional money to the commission in fiscal 2023.
Continuing to fund it going forward would be double-dipping, Tierney said. “It’s a matter of simple logic.”
The all-Democrat council is set to hear public testimony on the ordinance June 27.
“I think we have the votes,” Tierney said.
April Nyman, longtime executive director of the Anne Arundel Arts Council, was dismayed by the City Council proposal, and called Torri’s successful bid to receive hotel tax funding, “a very smart decision.”
Although any local arts council in Maryland is eligible to receive hotel tax funding, Anne Arundel County appears to be the only municipality taking advantage opportunity, said Steven Skerritt-Davis, executive director of the Maryland State Arts Council.
The late Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch was key in developing that legislation, Nyman said.
Hotel tax funding became politically popular two decades ago, as a response to mid-1990s “culture wars.” Politicians could say they supported the arts but avoid taking the blame for any direct appropriations for controversial projects. Under the 2009 Anne Arundel County plan, the tourism board Visit Annapolis receives 17% of all county and city hotel taxes, and the county arts council another 3%.
But last year, Elfreth proposed a bill that would require more accountability for how those tax dollars are spent. That’s when Torri suggested an additional cut of the city’s hotel tax money go directly to the Annapolis arts commission, and Elfreth agreed. At the request of Ward 6 Alderman DaJuan Gay, Elfreth also earmarked another 3% of Annapolis hotel tax funding to an affordable housing fund.
The net result: Starting July 1, Annapolis will receive 74% of all hotel taxes collected instead of 80%, a net loss of about $500,000 a year. The city’s total budget is about $175 million.
“We have a nice budget coming up,” Torri told her fellow commissioners at the May meeting where the commission discussed future plans to spend more than $200,000 in the coming fiscal year. “I don’t think it will be hard to spend it. People are circling.”
Under its current mandate, the commission only funds arts events and exhibits that can be experienced by the public for free. As a city commission, it cannot directly receive outside grant funding. The majority of its budget supports murals, two city-owned gallery spaces and the City Dock Summer Concert series. Former Mayor Ellen Moyer, a Democrat, established the commission in 2001 to ensure the city had arts funding beyond grants given out to arts groups by the county arts commission.
When Republican Mike Pantelides was elected mayor of Annapolis in 2013, he promptly cut the arts commission funding down to $0. The commission survived his mayorship thanks to donations that were passed through an Annapolis community nonprofit. Under current Mayor Gavin Buckley, a Democrat, funding rebounded. Torri, a political consultant who also has worked in the music industry, was appointed to the commission in 2019. She also ran Buckley’s successful reelection campaign in 2021.
Her fear, she said, is that future mayors and councils may be less friendly to the arts, so she wanted to secure funding.
“Our plan for the future is being smart, and being fiscally responsible,” Torri said.
Tierney, however, believes that Torri erred by not coming to the council and requesting more money. In an interview, the alderwoman stressed that her concerns about the commission stem from Torri and her colleagues failing to spend all their allocated funding in recent fiscal years, and then working with Elfreth to change the hotel tax funding distribution without consulting the council.
“My angst is around how this was done, and why they did this,” Tierney said.
Elfreth defended her legislation by saying she informed the mayor about the change last year, and said she authored the bill because she wanted the commission to have a dedicated funding source.
But the senator said she did not know the council would respond by cutting arts funding from the city code, nor did she know the council had not been informed. “I was under the impression that communicating with the mayor’s office was sufficient,” she said.
Buckley said he supported the devoted hotel tax funding to the commission and declined to comment on the apparent communication pitfall.
At several points throughout the city’s June budgeting process, Tierney, Gay, and Ward 2 Alderwoman Karma O’Neill all made derogatory comments about the arts commission and its funding choices, such as “Tango Night” at City Dock. Recreation and Parks Director Archie Trader lobbied for council budget amendments that would add line items for a basketball mural at the Pip Moyer Recreation Center and to make a documentary about gun violence in the city.
He was told to get that money from the arts council.
“We just gave them $250,000,” Gay said, referring to the hotel tax allocation.
But Torri said Trader only asked the commission for $10,000 for the mural, and that’s what he received. Commission funding for murals typically tops out at $15,000.
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Furthermore, the council has never funded a film project because filmmakers typically aspire to enter their work in film festivals, which charge admission — therefore making films ineligible for commission funding.
As for allegations that the commission failed to spend all its allocations from previous fiscal years, Torri said the commission ended up with a budget surplus from COVID-19 cancellations and rolled over some of the money in case the council reduced its funding.
“Some council members do not understand what we do,” Torri said. Her priorities for fiscal 2023 include upping the fees for artists who perform at the City Dock concert series, putting out a request for proposals for a permanent public art installation at Westgate Circle and possible collaborations with the Anne Arundel County Arts Council.
Nyman says those projects are possible because she and Torri worked together to push for the hotel tax funding legislation.
“Through this, we have gained a valuable partnership,” Nyman said.
Even if the commission receives the maximum projected hotel tax money of around $250,000, that’s still not much money in the grand scheme of arts funding. The arts and humanities commission in Washington, D.C., has a budget derived of $33 million from sales taxes; bids for one mural project alone start at $250,000.
But in Tierney’s view, the Annapolis commission should be able to leverage the same amount of money and fund many projects. “We’ll have to see what they do,” Tierney said.
For the record
A previous version of this story misstated when the arts funding ordinance would be voted on. A hearing on the bill will be held June 27. A final vote will likely come next month.