Balto. Co. ups ante for city arts

Executive proposes $3.8 million in grants for cultural groups

Budget cuts threaten boost

May 16, 2001|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Backing up the rhetoric of regionalism with cold cash, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger is proposing unprecedented taxpayer contributions to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Maryland Science Center and other cultural institutions in Baltimore City.

In his budget for the coming fiscal year, Ruppersberger has proposed increasing grants to Baltimore City-based organizations to $3.8 million from $2.6 million - a 47 percent increase. The proposal occurs as Baltimore is considering closing libraries, laying off workers and cutting other services.

"In times when the city is attempting to pull themselves out, we said for this year, we would be willing to step up," Ruppersberger said yesterday. "We managed well. We have a surplus. We have the ability.

"It's not to anybody's advantage for those institutions to fail," he said.

The grants funding must survive scrutiny by the County Council, which is looking for potential budget trims as it contemplates increasing the $10.5 million property tax cut proposed by the executive.

The council auditor has recommended reducing the grants budget by $1.6 million, a figure that includes cuts to city- and county-based organizations. But Council Chairman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, said he agreed with the need to increase grants.

"Those cultural institutions have a definite impact on our property values," Moxley said.

Baltimore County has long donated money to city organizations, as suburban officials recognized the folly of building duplicate facilities only a few miles apart. County records show that 60 percent of Mechanic Theatre attendees come from Baltimore County, as do 65 percent of the subscribers to the Handel Choir and 58 percent of Maryland Arts Festival patrons.

Ruppersberger often preaches the value of regionalism, and his recent budgets have demonstrated that commitment. If no cuts are made, the county's funding to city groups will have doubled in four years, up from $1.8 million in the 1998-1999 budget year.

"We're delighted that Baltimore County is proposing an increase in our funding," said Doreen Bolger, the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, which would receive an increase from $250,000 to $400,000. The city is contemplating a museum funding cut from $3 million to $2.25 million, as well as extending the energy tax to nonprofit organizations.

"We believe this represents a recognition of a level of service the museum provides to county residents, particularly schoolchildren, of whom 11,500 came to the BMA last year from the county," Bolger said.

For Center Stage Theater, the executive has proposed a $25,000 increase in operating funds, to $125,000. The city contribution could drop 30 percent, from $59,683 to $41,778.

"The annual funding from governments allows us to do outreach programs that don't bring in earned income," said Anne Fulwiler, Center Stage's associate director of development.

Ruppersberger's budget also shows that the county executive has made two-year pledges totaling $1 million each to the endowments of the Baltimore Zoo and the Maryland Science Center. Both institutions are embarking on large-scale construction and renovation projects.

The commitments surprised some councilmen, who a year ago criticized Ruppersberger for promising $1 million over two years to the renovation of the Hippodrome Theater without first consulting them. An angry council cut the amount in half, and is raising similar questions about the zoo and Science Center pledges.

"It's not a matter of numbers, it's a matter of being involved in the process," said Councilman John A. Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat.

Robert J. Barrett, a Ruppersberger aide, said councilmen were briefed on the pledges during busy private meetings and may not have remembered details.

Ruppersberger was so generous that he provided $95,000 to Baltimore organizations that missed a funding application deadline, including $15,000 for the Great Blacks in Wax Museum.

But recognizing that the city's financial problems could be long-term and that a slumping economy could change the fiscal health of the suburbs, Ruppersberger and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley are considering the creation of a permanent funding method for the arts similar to United Way donations. They're using a program in Cincinnati as a model.

"We're looking for another way," Ruppersberger said.

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