LARGO — A city commissioner's comments concerning the cost of operating the Largo Cultural Center have sparked discord among some center volunteers and written rebukes from two other commissioners.
Not to mention a vigorous defense by Joan Byrne, head of the Recreation, Parks and Arts department, which oversees the Cultural Center.
The center, which was built in 1996 partially with large donations from private benefactors as a low-cost outlet for the arts in the city, brings in about 70 percent of its cost to operate — a good number, Byrne said.
"We have outperformed — in cost recovery — what most cultural centers are doing," she said.
But at the Sept. 22 city meeting where commissioners passed Largo's 2011 budget 5-2, Commissioner Curtis Holmes said the center's finances should be placed under tighter scrutiny, and that it should generate more of its own income — or else.
"I don't believe in this redistribution of wealth," Holmes said. "If they don't show an improvement in finances. . . . I will go to great lengths to make sure there are no further subsidies."
Holmes also said he would like a breakdown of every one of the center's expenses and income sources.
Holmes' primary issue with the center is that it does not generate 100 percent of its operating income. During most years, it brings in about 70 percent of its costs of business. The rest is paid for with tax dollars — something Holmes feels shouldn't be done by the city.
But most arts centers rely on donations and public money. The city of Chicago, for instance, spends nearly $10 million annually in public money on programming for its Cultural Center, one of the largest in the United States.
Centers of similar size in west-central Florida operate on similar financial footing.
The Carrollwood Cultural Center in Tampa, for instance, has a budget of $780,000 and receives about $380,000 per year in public money, earning a little more than half of its own operating costs through ticket sales and venue rental.
A little farther east, Theatre Winter Haven brings in enough to cover the cost of performances but the city pays other operating expenses, Byrne said.
In 2009, the Largo Cultural Center's total budget was $1.2 million, with $367,000 coming from city coffers, putting it at about 70 percent. The two years prior yielded similar returns.
Commissioners Gigi Arntzen and Robert Murray also have come to the Cultural Center's defense.
Arntzen sent an e-mail to fellow commissioners and city staff on Sept. 24 explaining the impact of questioning the center's finances.
"The accusations leveled at the Cultural Center and Recreation, Parks and Arts as a whole, are demoralizing to our staff," Arntzen wrote. "I have been contacted by employees who are distraught by the claims made and feel helpless in defending themselves and their fellow workers."
Murray also sent an e-mail to staff concerning morale as it related to a story published last month in the weekly Clearwater Gazette hinting that theft from the center's concessions cash register could have taken place. But there's no evidence of such wrongdoing.
"My concern is if the accusations are untrue, we have destroyed a level of trust with the volunteers and the staff," he wrote. "While accountability is essential in government, it must be done without accusations and innuendos."
Arntzen defends the center's staff.
"Over the years since the opening of the Cultural Center," she wrote in the e-mail, "I can easily say I have attended possibly two hundred events and have NEVER received a disparaging remark about the conduct or work ethic of any employee."