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Arts, Parks Boosters Fight City Budget Cuts

Midtown organizations rally against the cuts at City Hall.

A proposed city of Atlanta budget cut to arts and parks funding attracted puppeteering protesters and veteran park volunteers to City Hall this week. They argued the relatively tiny sliver of city money that they usually get delivers outsized returns. 

"Normally we don't see this kind of participation unless someone's thinking about raising your taxes," marveled Dist. 8 City Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean as she opened the public hearing for Atlanta's 2012 budget in front of some 50 people Thursday night.

Rainie Jueschke, development director of the , stated part of the case for art funding -- the economics. "We draw visitors and dollars from around the world," she said. She cited a study that suggests the Midtown puppetry center has a $9 million economic impact in Atlanta.  Jueschke added that includes taxes generated by her operations, which contribute $221,000 to Atlanta's city coffer.

Her group is one of 63 that received grants from Atlanta's Office of Cultural Affairs in the 2011 budget year ending this June. The year's total comes to $470,000 in grants to individual artists, to large and small organizations and for specific projects.  But next year's proposed budget cuts that by half.

"With these proposed cuts only there are 30 organizations that will receive funding and I'm sure the smallest of us will be the ones not receiving it," said Angela Harris, executive director of Dance Canvas, an Auburn Avenue nonprofit dance company that takes on works by emerging choreographers.

The cuts "in the scheme of things is a tiny amount of money, except it's a huge amount of money  for the impact it will make in the arts," Harris said.

Park boosters are no happier with a proposed cut that would cut funding for eight positions in the parks department and would hamper maintenance. That means it would also slow down the city fight against non-native invasive plant species. Think kudzu: imported plants that swallow trees and buildings whole.  Or privet, a fast-growing shrub that blocks sight lines and can hide indiscreet activities.

Letting up on kudzu and the like will "destroy infrastructure improvements," said President and CEO Yvette Bowden. And it's harder to attract volunteers, she said, unless it's clear that the city is contributing too.

Private groups are "supposed to supplement the city," not do its job, Bowden said.

Margaret Connelly is executive director of Park Pride, a nonprofit that organizes volunteers and helps maintain parks citywide.

The cuts will become a safety issue, she said. "We'll see more trash.  We'll see more weeds. We'll see more invasives."

Even one year of deferred maintenance takes a long time to recover from, Connelly said.

Atlanta's 2012 budget would total $546 million under the draft proposed by Mayor Kasim Reed. That's some $13.5 million less than 2011 budget, which ends this June 30.

There will be new spending on 100 new police officers among other things. Besides parks and arts, other cuts will come from a 3 percent pay decrease for the city's top earners and from administrative trims.

Besides all that, the city has a "backlog" of some $1 billion in infrastructure works it needs to do, noted city Chief Financial Officer Joya De Foor.

After about two hours of public testimony, Dist. 9 Councilwoman Felicia Moore thanked the audience for their interest and noted that her email box is full of notes from arts boosters. But the veteran councilwoman pointed out that a cut must come somewhere, asking the audience to "dig a little deeper in the budget and find some areas that could be cut," if they want to keep arts and parks money.

City Council will finish hearing budget pitches from city departments by next week. Then they deliberate and can make adjustments to the budget, which must approved in June.

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