Sales tax increase for the arts could be on November ballot

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Tacoma voters may be asked this November to decide whether to increase the sales tax to remove financial and other barriers to access to the arts. Supporters of the measure claim it would make the arts more accessible for a range of people, from children to the elderly.

In 2015 the Legislature passed a law allowing local jurisdictions to place a measure before voters to invest in arts, culture, science and history programs. This would be financed by an increase in either the sales or property tax. Under this new authority, the Arts and Culture Coalition of Pierce County has proposed Tacoma Creates. The initiative is designed to make arts and culture more accessible to a wider range of residents. The coalition, founded in 2009, consists of 26 arts and cultural organizations.

The initiative is modeled on similar programs across the country, including St. Louis, Minnesota and the Denver metropolitan area. The program in Denver has been in place for 30 years and distributes $40 million a year through a Scientific and Cultural Facilities District.

The local measure calls for an increase in the sales tax of one-10th of 1 percent, with an aim of raising $5 million a year. If approved, the tax increase would be in place for seven years. Voters would need to approve any extension in the future. The coalition claims it would cost the average household $13 a year.

If passed by voters, Tacoma Creates would expand arts education and programs to Tacoma youth. Arts organizations would partner with Tacoma Public Schools and various non-profit organizations. Transportation to activities and events would be funded as well. Participating groups would need a two-year track record of providing programs to the public.

Tacoma City Council would have to approve placing the measure on the ballot. On June 5 the council heard a presentation on Tacoma Creates. Tanya Durand, executive director of Children’s Museum of Tacoma, began with a brief overview of why the arts are integral to the community. She noted the role Broadway Center for the Performing Arts and the various museums have played in revitalizing downtown and increasing tax revenue. “We have a great base to build upon,” she remarked.

Kimberly Keith, executive director of Hilltop Artists discussed Write 253, a creative writing program for youth. Tacoma Creates could allow the organization to hire more staff and expand the program to more schools. Tacoma Historical Society could expand its speaker series to more senior citizens. Groups like Centro Latino could expand its cultural programs, she added.

Metro Parks Executive Director Shon Sylvia discussed recent efforts to expand sports programs to schools. Participation is up 72 percent, he noted. Tacoma Creates could do the same for arts through equity in access, extending programs to more neighborhoods and leveraging other funds. “I really applaud this effort.”

Michael Mirra, executive director of Tacoma Housing Authority, said many residents of public housing have experienced trauma such as homelessness. “Arts helps them with healing and stabilization,” he remarked. Mirra said many residents are elderly, and arts programs can keep them from becoming isolated.

Tacoma Creates would be managed by the City’s Office of Arts and Cultural Vitality. Costs to administer the program would be capped at 8 percent of money raised by the tax increase. An independent advisory board would oversee the program, including developing criteria and guidelines for funding and evaluating results.

Councilmember Catherine Ushka, who represents the East Side and part of South Tacoma, said such advisory boards in Tacoma tend to be dominated by white people who live north of Interstate 5. Durand said the council would decide which applicants are appointed. Ushka added that raising the sales tax could be a tough sell to her constituents.

Councilmember Chris Beale, who represents South Tacoma, noted that the poor are most adversely affected by sales taxes. While voicing support for the arts, he said many of his constituents would prefer more funding for police. Beale said he would prefer initiative to fund affordable housing over one for the arts. If Tacoma Creates were to be approved, he would want arts groups to offer new programs for his district.

Councilmember Keith Blocker, who represents Hilltop and part of South Tacoma, also expressed concern about raising taxes on low-income residents. “I can just see people struggling with that.”

Councilmember Conor McCarthy voiced support for the arts. While there are costs associated with cultural programs, he said the benefits are worth it. But he noted Tacoma’s sales tax is among the highest in the state. “We need to be honest about the tax impact.”

Mayor Victoria Woodards mentioned something she observed about 20 years ago, shortly after she took a job with the local chapter of the Urban League. A group of at-risk youth enrolled in an alternative high school program were engaged in an art activity. Teaching the lesson was famed glass artist, and Tacoma native, Dale Chihuly. “I am a firm believer that art saves lives.”

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