While the latest proposal to retire the debt of the Overture Center for the Performing Arts was dismissed by Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and the city's Board of Estimates, the discussion does not end there.
Resolving questions regarding the facility's outstanding construction debt, annual operating deficit and ultimate control may be contentious, but there are manageable options.
Debate over the construction debt and operating budget has been poorly focused and can only lead to continued problems. What's needed, before these matters can be resolved, is a permanent structural solution to the administration of Overture.
Ten years ago, when Jerry Frautschi gave Madison the single largest private donation for the performing arts in U.S. history, little thought was given to management. Subsequently, decisions about structures and operational systems for the new arts entity were driven more by avoidance of responsibility than logic.
Sad to say, but the Overture Center's present governing structure is a nightmare.
The facility is operated by a board - a public body that derives its power from state law. The board members are appointed by a variety of public officials, including the governor, Dane County executive and mayor of Madison.
This governing board has no power to tax or raise revenues, and it has only partial control of its staff, who are hired and employed by the city of Madison. Its executive director and, consequently, its entire staff are responsible to the board - not to an elected chief executive, as with city or county government department heads.
The city's original Civic Center board, which I helped create, was modeled after the Madison Public Library Board. It was composed of citizens and elected officials appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council. It balanced the need for public oversight and control with the need for free expression of ideas.
Just as important, this public structure placed responsibility for raising and spending public money, ultimately, in the hands of elected officials.
A return to the Civic Center structure has other advantages. It assures that employees are part of an organization where their hiring, firing, promotion and classification are not fragmented.
The present structure encourages discord and deprives the staff of building trust.
How did this happen? Some history is in order.
In 1999, the year after Jerry Frautschi announced plans to give Madison $100 million (later increased to $205 million) for an arts center, then-Mayor Sue Bauman raised a concern. She informed Mr. Frautschi that while his gift was welcomed, city oversight was not. A new management scheme would be needed, to spare the city from performing this role.
Thus was born the Madison Cultural Arts District (MCAD), the worst possible form of government. It is a special district, it is not elected, it has no power to raise revenues, and it is dependent on the city for administrative services. MCAD has no constituency.
When Bauman informed the public that MCAD was Frautschi's idea, which it was not, the needed critical debate died.
Had there been city of Madison governance, Overture would not have been overbuilt. Thus there would be lower construction and operating costs and greater accessibility for local arts groups who can no longer afford to perform at a State Street location.
Now the challenge is to rectify these problems, as best we can.
The fix is not simple. First the private sector needs to solve the problem of the construction debt. That is all the private sector needs to do. It can be done.
Once that debt is retired, the mayor and city council can resurrect the management structure of the old Civic Center. (It would be better to have a Dane County-controlled facility, since that service area provides most of the patrons, but this is not likely to happen.)
From there, the remaining challenge is the not-insignificant cost of annual operation.
There's only one viable option: taxation. And it must be taxation on a county level, the geographic area served by Overture.
In Colorado and Minnesota, coalitions were formed to support sales taxes to fund the arts, public transit and environmental protection. A modest countywide sales tax of one-tenth of a percent would raise approximately $9 million annually. Probably $6.5 million would come from within the city of Madison.
Sales taxes are fairer revenue generators than the property tax and capture income from visitors. An equal split would allow $3 million each for Overture, public transit and county programs to clean up the lakes.
This is a package that needs cooperation between the city, the county and the state.