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Debate over Dunedin group grants leads to heated exchange between city commissioners

DUNEDIN — Discussion over how much money the city should budget next year to give to outside organizations led to heated words among commissioners at a workshop Tuesday.

The months-long discussion over how much the Dunedin Fine Art Center and Dunedin Historical Society should receive led to a verbal tug-of-war between City Commission members Julie Scales and Julie Ward Bujalski.

Commissioners said they've received angry, "divisive" e-mails — some of which contain inaccurate assumptions — since a June budget workshop in which they tentatively agreed to reduce each organizations' funding by $5,000.

At the time, Bujalski said her goal was for longtime organizations to become more self-sufficient. She and several other commissioners said they wanted to use the money pulled from the art center and historical society to create a $10,000 pool they could distribute to new art, cultural and social service groups that serve Dunedin residents.

Commissioners returned to the topic Tuesday, ultimately voting to split the $10,000 pool among new groups, including the Clearwater-based Homeless Emergency Project.

But they also agreed to find an additional $5,000 to reallocate to the art center and $3,500 to the historical society in the form of in-kind services by city employees.

Those services which would increase the amount of in-kind services the city provides to the art center to $69,579 and the historical society to $32,371 — would include annual repair work on a new $1.9 million art center wing, which opens in September, and the historical society-run Andrews Memorial Chapel.

In addition to the in-kind services, the city would give the art center a cash contribution of $42,304 and the historical society would receive $58,880 in cash.

But first, Scales, the commission's liaison to the art center, urged her colleagues to maintain the current level of cash funding to the center and historical society — groups she said have fulfilled the city's economic goals by adding character and attracting visitors. The city, Scales said, should not be funding groups based outside the city at the expense of "homegrown" organizations.

"I do not understand why each of the last two years we've spent time on why we should penalize them," Scales said.

That comment touched off an impassioned response from Bujalski, who countered that the city has been "under a severe budget crunch" resulting in cuts "across the board."

Furthermore, Bujalski said, donating in-kind maintenance services makes sense considering that the city recently allowed the art center to add a new wing to its city-owned building, thereby increasing the center's operating costs. She also noted the city has partnered with the art center on many projects.

"So you can't say we are penalizing this group," Bujalski said. "We've supported this group incredibly. And for anyone to say otherwise is just outright lying."

Several commissioners, including Mayor Dave Eggers, acknowledged Tuesday that the agency funding issue is an emotional one, likely because both the commissioners, the organizations' leaders and their supporters are so passionate.

At the end of Tuesday's workshop, both he and Bujalski apologized to any audience members or viewers who may have been offended by the discussion.

"At the end of the day," Eggers said, "we want to make sure we have good functioning organizations that contribute to the community and work with each other."

Added Commissioner David Carson: "It comes down to need."

George Ann Bissett, the art center's executive director, said Wednesday that she understood the commissioners voted the way they thought was best. But considering how much the art center does for the city with so little, she wishes the center received more money.

"I want to feel the love more," she said.

Dunedin Historical Society executive director Vince Luisi could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

In addition to the art center and historical society, the City Commission also agreed to:

• Give $2,225 to the Homeless Emergency Project and $10,000 to the Safe Harbor homeless shelter near Largo. Eggers unsuccessfully argued for additional funding for Faith in Action and Neighborly Care Network, both of which assist senior citizens. They each would receive $12,150 under next year's proposal.

• Grant Bujalski's request for $2,225 in seed money to start a sister city program and $2,000 for a Mayor's Apple Award program, to reward area schools that improve their letter grades.

• Reduce funds for awards and flowers, as well as the annual chamber directory ad.

The City Commission also proposed setting aside portions of its agency funding budget for downtown holiday lights, employee holiday gift cards, graduation night activities, the city youth guild and renting practice field space at Dunedin High for the Dunedin Jr. Falcons.

Keyonna Summers can be reached at ksummers@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

Debate over Dunedin group grants leads to heated exchange between city commissioners 08/10/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 10, 2011 10:00pm]

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