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It is no secret that people want to live, work and visit communities where there is a vibrant arts scene. Live theater, the visual arts, museums, music and dance form a cultural foundation, drawing visitors and enhancing life for residents. As the Pinellas County Commission ponders eliminating the county's cultural affairs department due to budgetary cutbacks, commissioners should remember the arts are an essential part of the county's identity and economic development - and consider other options.

The arts are not immune to the budget cutting necessary to reflect declining property values and reduced tax collections. But they are bearing more than their share of the burden. State arts grants in fiscal year 2006-07 totaled $34.4 million; for 2010-11 it's $950,000. In Pinellas County, the appropriation for cultural affairs went from $2.2 million in 2009 to $890,000 in 2010, and commissioners are planning to eliminate the department in the 2011 fiscal year, which starts in October.

As dire as this seems, the move would not spell the end of public arts funding in Pinellas. There will still be cultural tourism grant money and other funds, though diminished, that will be awarded to deserving institutions and programs. Professionalizing the grant-making process was a key function of the cultural affairs department. Judith Powers, the department's director whose job is being eliminated, brought a vetting and review process to grant requests that made funding decisions by the County Commission more merit-based and less political.

If the department is eliminated, county commissioners should consider supporting an independent arts organization that can take its place. A public/private arts council could take on the roles that the county department played: stewarding the grant-making process, providing the area's arts organizations with professional development and grant-writing training, administering a public art program, and marketing the arts so that they are supported by residents and the business community.

One idea being considered is for the county to provide about $300,000 per year to support the operations of the Pinellas Cultural Foundation, a nonprofit county arts group that was initially established as a conduit for donations to the Pinellas Arts Council. The Arts Council was absorbed into county government in 2006, becoming the cultural affairs department. Now the best option may be to essentially recreate the old system.

Politicians too often view the arts as an expendable luxury rather than a long-term investment in a community's quality of life. In Pinellas County, the creative energy that emanates from the vast array of visual and performing arts offerings makes it a desirable place to live and work, and gives tourists a reason to come off the beaches into our downtowns. When the county's scarce resources are allocated for the coming year, the arts should share the pain but not be left behind.