Villaraigosa drops plan to cut arts grants

More than 300 Los Angeles arts organizations that had faced cuts in their city-funded grants are now likely to receive a full share after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's decision to drop his controversial plan to take $415,000 from the arts grant budget and give the money to four other cultural organizations he had picked himself.

"We were overzealous," Ben Ceja, deputy mayor for budget and finance, told the City Council committee that has examined the mayor's budget proposal with each department head, in preparation for making recommendations to the full council.

Ceja asked the budget and finance committee to restore the money to the Department of Cultural Affairs budget so the grants can be fully paid. While no action was taken during the meeting last week, committee Chairman Bernard C. Parks said he was miffed that the transfer had been proposed in the first place.

Villaraigosa had wanted to spend $250,000 on Channel 36, a city-owned cable TV station; $75,000 for the El Grito annual Mexican independence celebration; and $45,000 each for the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival and the Pan African Film Festival.

Ceja said the idea sprang from the mayor's attempt to address the deficit in the city's general fund by pulling money out of other budget areas. He said the four organizations picked to receive the $415,000 siphoned from arts grants customarily have gotten annual city funding from other departments that are being cut, and Villaraigosa wanted to continue supporting them.

Restoring the money to the $2.76-million arts grants program would be good news for 35 organizations that would have lost their grants even though they had been approved through the standard application process in which panels of experts review and score each proposal. An additional 271 arts groups would avoid 7% to 15% reductions. If the cuts are restored in a budget scheduled to be adopted next month, the grants are expected to range from $2,200 to the $64,000 proposed for the 18th Street Arts Complex.

Ceja said the change of heart came after Olga Garay, Villaraigosa's appointee as executive director of the cultural affairs department, explained the process of competitive grants in place since 1989. It was "a key [factor] that made us reconsider this," the deputy mayor said. "We didn't want to harm the process."

However, another potentially thorny arts-policy issue awaits as the City Council continues its struggle to fill a projected $485-million deficit for 2010-11.

The mayor and council both have OKd a plan to seek private operators to run seven neighborhood arts centers and theaters, resulting in 15 fewer government jobs and a projected savings of $1.2 million in the fiscal year ahead.

But another council initiative, passed recently by the budget and finance committee and awaiting review by the full body, would end nonprofit groups' rent-free use of city buildings, charging them at least 50% of market rents and ending subsidized maintenance and utility expenses. While Parks says the policy would not take effect for at least a year and that the city would analyze each affected organization's deal before making any changes, Garay is concerned that the uncertainty could undermine the move to privatize the seven arts sites. The problem: Any prospective operators would need to know what fixed costs they would face before submitting their proposals.

Garay said she has set aside $365,000 to keep six of the facilities running through December, albeit with part-time hires replacing veteran site directors and instructors being laid off at the end of June. The seventh facility, the Vision Theatre in Leimert Park, is closed for renovations. If all goes as planned, private operators would be in place in time to avoid closing the venues. Garay has budgeted $14,000 each to help privatized arts centers — both the new ones and 10 where private operators already are in place.

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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