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Central Valley's Fresno: Home of Raisins--and Art? : Funding: City's residents tax themselves, potentially raising about $5 million annually for science, cultural, artistic and even tree-planting projects.

April 06, 1993|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Q uestion: Which California city recently became first in the state and only second in the nation to bite the new cultural-support bullet and approve an "Arts to Zoo" ballot measure to increase its sales tax by 1/10 of 1% to help fund arts, science and multicultural organizations?

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On the ballot "Arts to Zoo" appeared coincidentally as Measure F. "F" for Fresno and satellite communities.

Modeled after a 1988 Denver initiative, the measure, which won with an impressive 57.4% vote March 2, increases the area's sales tax from 7.75% to 7.85%. While it doesn't sound like much--a penny for every $10 spent on taxable items will be funneled through a specially created Fresno Metropolitan Projects Authority--about $5 million could be raised annually to fund science, cultural, artistic and even tree-planting projects.

That's quite a windfall for California's eighth largest city, considering that Fresno currently funds the arts at $150,000--down 25% from the previous fiscal year--and that the entire state grants and programs support of the California Arts Council is $10.6 million.

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Other cities have a variety of special support mechanisms. Los Angeles' $5-million Endowment for the Arts is largely funded from the equivalent of 1% of the city's hotel/motel bed tax.

Fresno's assessment will begin in July, and the first funding is expected by September, says former mayor Daniel K. Whitehurst, the authority's chairman.

In Fresno?

"I'm very happy we are surprising people around the country," laughs Irene Klug Nielsen, general manager of the Fresno Philharmonic, one of the "Big Four" cultural institutions in the San Joaquin Valley that will share in varying amounts 50%, or $2.5 million. "It took a lot of hard work and planning for four years. . . . Fresno has always been looked upon as a little farm town that didn't have much going for it. We're tired of that image."

According to Whitehurst, it happened in Fresno because a bipartisan group of business people and civic leaders decided they needed to "create the amenities a growing city ought to have at a time when the usual sources of funding were drying up. . . . If we had been in a community with large corporations and foundations, Measure F might never have happened."

Campaigners argued that as agriculture declined as the basis for Fresno's economy, building up its cultural base could attract business and industry to the region, and that museums and parks are places where people from diverse backgrounds can "share a common experience" that could "strengthen mutual understanding."

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Before the measure could go on the ballot, it had to be approved by the state legislature and Gov. Pete Wilson. Fresno's Sen. Ken Maddy, GOP minority leader and friend of the arts, was the key sponsor. "Having someone in the Republican leadership who was close to the governor (was) ideal," noted Whitehurst.

Meanwhile, the Projects Authority was able to bypass a two-thirds majority rule for approving tax legislation because it was not run by any governmental body, and its boundaries did not conform to any existing city or county boundaries.

How much will go directly to the arts or multicultural organizations is uncertain. About $1 million, the lion's share of the $2.5 million, is expected to go to the Fresno Zoological Society because it has the largest budget. The Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art, History and Science and the Fresno Art Museum also count as major institutions.

In addition, 25% will go to scientific, cultural and multicultural facilities and programs "whose primary purpose is to provide for the general enlightenment and entertainment of the public"; 11.5% for building and environmental projects; 5% for multicultural events such as the Fresno International Exposition; 5% for public broadcasting. The rest is discretionary with administrative expenses capped at 1.5%.

For the 75-member Philharmonic, whose budget is $1 million, it could mean another $400,000. "We're committed to expanding our programs into neighborhoods, have concerts in the schools, summer concerts in parks, and hope to do a Fourth of July outdoor concert," Nielsen notes.

A key campaign issue involved the Big Four's hefty portion of the pie. But Nielson insists large institutions have "the most ability to reach out to the most number of people. Our emphasis, and that of the zoo and the museums, will be to enter into multicultural programming."

However, Mario Carrera, manager of Channel 21, the Spanish-language station in the region, who opposed the tax, maintains that the major institutions "are not set up to service specifically or at least proportionately the Hispanic community." Nearly a third of Fresno's population is Latino. Carrera worries the tax might actually "stifle the growth" of the mostly young Latino arts groups that he said would have difficulty competing.

But Brenda Buckingham, director of the 12-year-old African-American Historical and Cultural Museum, which has a $200,000 budget, is very enthusiastic: "We're expecting to receive in the first year at least $100,000," much-needed funds, as the museum recently purchased a 10,000-square-foot structure that "needs renovation, adding sculptures and artifacts, so it's like starting over."

Robert Barrett, director of the Fresno Art Museum, which houses modern and contemporary art--a third of its collection devoted to Mexican and Mexican-American art and pre-Columbian sculptures--expects to increase the museum's $900,000 budget by nearly half.

Asked if he was surprised by the vote, Barrett also laughed: "Hell no! People aren't stupid. They want to do good things for themselves. This idea people won't vote for taxes. They will if they know exactly what's it's for, and not down some dark hole."

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