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Arts Funding on the King County Ballot

UPDATE, May 1, 2017: The King County Council has voted 7-2 to include the Access for All initiative on the August Primary ballot, according to a statement issued by King County Executive Dow Constantine's office. 

Original story, March 28, 2017: A significant piece of arts funding legislation is making its way to the ballot this summer, setting many a managing director’s heart racing with possibility. Access for All, formerly known as Cultural Access Washington, would fund area arts, heritage and science organizations to the tune of some $65 million a year for seven years starting in 2019, funded by a sales tax increase of 0.1 percent in King County.

In March King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office sent the ordinance to the County Council for approval as a ballot measure; it’s expected to be on the August primary ballot.

Of the estimated $65 million Access for All would accrue annually, 10 percent would fund education and access programs—bussing students to cultural organizations, paying for arts coordinators and developing arts education plans for school districts that are currently without them. Remaining money will be distributed to “regional” organizations (those with an operating budget over $1.25 million and annual attendance of over 50,000, or with an operating budget over $3 million, regardless of attendance) using a formula based on budget and audience size. Smaller community-based organizations (CBOs) are eligible to apply to receive up to 15 percent of their operating budget, with potential additional money available for projects or capital expenses.

Access for All, which has been in the works for a decade, was initially modeled on the Denver Scientific and Cultural Facilities District. Since 1989, the SCFD has fueled nonprofits in seven Colorado counties using the same 0.1 percent sales tax. Last year voters reauthorized the program through 2030. Leaders in Seattle’s arts and cultural world have been working together to design legislation that would similarly benefit our region, ultimately creating a statewide measure that would allow individual counties to tax themselves for this purpose, with voter approval. Washington State voters passed that law in 2015, and King County is the first county to avail itself of the opportunity.

That statewide law requires any county putting such a measure on the ballot to identify an “authority,” an extant organization tasked with translating the legislation into an actual, functional program and then administering it at the local level. 4Culture, already a county-wide arts agency, assumed that role soon after the 2015 vote.

Last summer, 4Culture held 15 public meetings around King County—Renton, Burien, Bellevue, Shoreline, Issaquah—to gather input, “in an effort to be as broad and inclusive as possible,” says 4Culture executive director Jim Kelly. Several significant changes resulted: Organizations without a 501(c)(3) nonprofit status can apply under a fiscal umbrella like Shunpike or Fractured Atlas, and social service organizations are eligible for project-specific support for their arts-related programming.

CBOs must apply for their piece of the pie in one of three categories: operations, projects and capital. While regional orgs won’t follow an application process, their requirements are stricter. Regionals must spend 20 percent of their award on public school access programs and up to 30 percent of their award on programs and services that have “equity outcomes,” as defined by King County. If anyone doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain, the checks stop coming.

“They’re going to have to tell us what they’re doing today so we can evaluate how this money allowed them to do better,” Kelly says. “They have to give us a plan for how they’re going to diversify staff and board in the future, and a plan of what programs they plan to take into schools, which schools, and how many.”

In Denver, a battle between larger and smaller organizations nearly sunk the reauthorization of the SCFD. Smaller groups campaigned to eliminate the program in its current design because they were frustrated that the lion’s share of the money goes to the organizations that already have the most, thus perpetuating some systemic and historical inequities. In San Francisco, the same two factions came together too late to pass a 2016 bill that would have funded the arts through a hotel tax.

By design, the King County ordinance leaves room for the details of the program to evolve. Because once voters approve an ordinance, that’s it—nothing can be changed.

“The art of writing the ordinance is to make it complete enough so that people understand the program, but not lock you in, so that one or two years into a seven-year cycle you realize you have to change something, but you can’t,” Kelly says. If the ordinance passes, 4Culture will submit a detailed implementation plan to the County Council within 90 days for approval.

“On the surface it appears crazy to invest in arts and culture when we have so many other compelling social programs,” says Kelly. “But I would argue that in the long-term, investing in kids and public access to the arts will reduce the homeless population and the rates of addiction. If you really want to address long-term social ills, you can deal with it downstream when it costs a fortune, or you can deal with it upstream, where it costs a fraction of what it will cost down the road.”

“Now’s our chance to step up to the plate and show how arts and culture and science and heritage can transform the lives of people and communities in the county,” he continues. “Let’s create our own utopia right here.”

See more in the April 2017 issue   →