Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Arts and "Plan C"

The State House is scheduled to act this Thursday on the bill that would allow the City to close a $700 million gap in its five year budget. Without this action the City will be forced to implement the "Plan C" budget which would be crippling to the City on many fronts, and would effectively eliminate all City cultural programs.

For those that have not been following this saga closely, the budget approved by the City Council and the Mayor required action from Harrisburg on two items - authority to raise the local sales tax by 1%, and some changes in the City's pension plan. The House eventually passed a bill - 1828 - that gave the City what it needed. The Senate then considered the bill and passed it with an array of amendments designed to rein in pension expenses throughout the state. That bill is what is now going back to the House. If the House passes it without amendment it will be signed by the Governor and the City's budget will be balanced. If the House passes a budget with further changes that the Senate does not agree to, the City will be forced to begin the process of implementing Plan C.

In the Arts, Culture and Creative Economy area, this means that notifications will begin going out to the field late tomorrow, providing details on what programs and services will be lost. Much has been written about all the horrible cuts included in Plan C - closure of all branch libraries, closure of recreation centers, 50% reduction in trash pickup, suspension of most programs and operations of Fairmount Park, police officer and fire fighter layoffs. But there has been relatively little coverage of the arts cuts included in Plan C.  Here is a summary of what will be eliminated:

  • All funding and staff or the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, including suspension of the Art in City Hall program and the Public Art program.
  • City funding for the Philadelphia Cultural Fund
  • City support for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Atwater Kent Museum, and African American Museum of Philadelphia
  • City support for Mural Arts Program
  • City funding for Avenue of the Arts
In related areas, the cuts to Commerce will include virtual elimination of the Art Commission and the Historical Commission. Other cultural programs and support that take place through Recreation, Records, City Representative and other departments are also largely eliminated. In terms of timing, staff will be notified if they are being laid off on September 18th, and all cuts and layoffs will become effective as of close of business on October 2nd. This is also when all program eliminations will take effect. If the House and Senate agree prior to September 18th, the notices will never go out, and in fact if there is agreement anytime up until October 2nd, we can pull back from the precipice. After that point, while programs and staffing can still be restored it gets much more complicated. Some staff may take retirement and not be able to or interested in returning to work; they may also find employment elsewhere. It will be complicated in many cases to restart programs, reopen facilities, etc.

There is hope that with pressure from their constituents, state legislators from both legislative bodies and both sides of the aisle will find a compromise before this comes to pass. It goes without saying these cuts will be crippling to the City and a significant blow to its citizens.

The shame of all this - if it does come to pass - is that there was so much hope and so much progress being made in our City arts and culture work and the sector as a whole, despite the difficult economy.

So let us hope this is not the case, that this becomes just a bad memory. BUT, citizens must take action to ensure that Plan C is just a piece of history - it won't happen by itself. Citizens can't just assume it will all work out, or leave it to others to act. And those that care about arts and culture need to ensure their voices are heard - that they care about the cultural life of the City and view these cuts as unacceptable.

Chief Cultural Officers - or whatever titles they have - come and go. But the existence of the Office itself should not come and go. Now that the Office has finally been reopened, let's ensure it stays open, and becomes so firmly established in the coming years that no future economic crisis or change in administration could ever again threaten its very existence.

1 comment:

  1. UPDATE: PA Senate just passed HB 1828, so the City has what it needs to close the $700 million budget gap. No more plan C! Congratulations to all who fought so hard in Harrisburg to make sure the City did not have to implement Plan C. Layoff notices would have gone out tomorrow - talk about down to the wire!