Largo Commission Okays Budget Despite Some Serious Doubts
By Leo Coughlin
LARGO - The City Commission last Wednesday finally wrapped up the city's fiscal year 2011 budget with warnings from Commissioner Curtis Holmes that two entertainment venues costing the city about $750,000 will get close monitoring from him.
While the Cultural Center, which costs taxpayers almost an extra $500,000 a year because it can't pay for itself, got support from five of the commissioners, the municipal golf course, which may be on its last legs, came under general criticism.
A storm of controversy is whirling around the Cultural Center, which, according to Commissioner Mary Black, is not fulfilling its original mission and is under scrutiny with questions raised on concession sales.
When the vote came on the 2011 budget it was 5-2 with Black and Holmes in opposition. Holmes had explained his opposition was symbolic - he said he doesn't want taxpayers supporting entertainment for the few and Black wants shows at the center that pay for themselves and she is against support for the golf course.
Black hit on exactly what is wrong at the Cultural Center in the view of those who have watched what has happened there over the years.
"When an original six hundred thousand dollar donation was made for the center," Black pointed out, "it was stipulated that the center was to support community theater." She added that the presentation of off-Broadway shows was not contemplated.
As it is, the center has appeared to go beyond the scope Black said was the original intention and relatively high-priced shows are brought in. The limited seating cannot support the ticket price that would have to be charged.
The golf course's future may be bleak as any commission support at all erodes. It is now on a "look and see" basis with promises that without improvement alternatives may be sought.
A subsidy of $250,000 is scheduled for the golf course in the 2011 budget that begins tomorrow. To put it in real and understandable terms, that is about $685 a day, a sum that many people in Largo don't earn in a week.
Obviously, the Cultural Center, costing more than $1,300 a day in subsidy funds, despite Black's definitions of its purpose, is a pet of commission members other than Black and Holmes.
Commissioners Bob Murray and Louis Brown agreed that the center is a valuable amenity, Commissioner Gigi Brown Arntzen called it exemplary of a "quality of life."
Mayor Pat Gerard, who said such centers don't pay their way, which might be a claim easily challenged, made the startling comment that she can't afford to go to the Ruth Eckerd Hall or the Tampa Bay Center for the Performing Arts.
A startling statement because a year ago when it first appeared that Gerard had a real challenge in her bid for re-election as mayor she immediately wrote her campaign a $10,000 check as a loan.
Her home in one of the more affluent neighborhoods in Largo is listed with a market value in the $400,000-plus range, far more than any of her colleagues on the commission.
And as to Ruth Eckerd Hall, now 25 years old, it is not tax supported.
Largo's Cultural Center was a "me too" venture, an attempt to "keep up with the Joneses" of Clearwater with their Eckerd Hall which has plenty of seating and can post reasonable prices for the excellent performances it brings in.
While the golf course is an enterprise fund, that is, designed to generate the revenue to pay for itself, the Cultural Center is not. "But even given that," one former commission member said, "when the taxpayers have to make up a deficit of what? - Four hundred and eight-two thousand dollars, that is just asking too much."
And that is not just a one-year shortfall. The half million or so year after year demonstrates a blatant failure. "After all," the former commission member said, "this is not a life and death thing. There is plenty of other quality of life in our city."
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