Residents advocate for arts and education programs during Winston-Salem budget forum

by Keith Barber

The city of Winston-Salem officially unveiled its $390.8 million budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year during a Finance Committee public hearing at City Hall on June 9. A number of citizens shared their thoughts on the budget with committee members, city council members, city officials and Mayor Allen Joines.

Budget Director Ann Jones opened the meeting by informing the committee that the city had managed to balance the proposed 2011-2012 budget without an increase in the current property-tax rate of 47.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. In a statement to Mayor Joines and members of the city council, City Manager Lee Garrity pointed out that Winston-Salem’s proposed property tax remains in the middle among other major cities in the state. Greensboro and Durham have higher property-tax rates, while Charlotte and Raleigh have lower rates. However, a comparison of the combined impact of taxes and fees on a city resident with property valued at $150,000 reveals that a Winston-Salem resident would pay $1,150 compared to the average for the four other cities of $1,370.

Garrity credited the city’s ability to hold the line on tax increases in the current recession due to lessons learned in lean budget years.

“Winston-Salem has had a lot of tough years even before this recession so we kind of are veterans at this,” Garrity s,aid. “We’ve been through downturns with many of our major corporations.”

Garrity praised the city’s employees who have gone without a pay increase for the past two years. In the proposed budget, Garrity has recommended a merit-based employee pay increase of up to 1.5 percent with a minimum increase of $500 per qualified employee.

“We’ve been fortunate that our employees have stepped up and done a lot more with a lot less,” he said. “We’ve been very, very cautious with our funding, so it’s a combination of good stewardship and a lot of hard work.”

Frank Dickerson, executive director of Piedmont Opera, lauded city officials for funding the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County at $195,000. Dickerson extolled the virtues of a vibrant arts community including an enhanced quality of life, the creation of thousands of jobs, and a vehicle to help Winston-Salem’s economy make the transition from heavy manufacturing to the high-tech industries of the future.

Calvin Patterson also advocated for the Winston-Salem arts community, pointing out that the Arts Council works closely with the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools to ensure that all children in the school system enjoy a minimum of four arts experiences a year. Patterson said research studies indicate a correlation between immersion in the arts and academic achievement.

Lisa Watts, development director for the Piedmont Triad Film Commission, asked the Finance Committee members for an increase in funding so the economic development agency could expand its staff to two members.

Rebecca Clark, the film commission’s executive director, said the city of Winston- Salem has allocated $19,500 in funding for the agency, but she is asking for $30,000 in funding for the 2011-2012 fiscal year. Clark said there are few agencies that offer the kind of return on investment of taxpayer dollars like the Piedmont Triad Film Commission.

Clark used the 2011 Hallmark Hall of Fame movie The Shunning, shot in the Piedmont Triad. The film project had a total budget of $3.2 million with a direct economic impact of $1.5 million on Piedmont Triad businesses.

“That’s $1.5 million spent in about a month and a half,” Clark said.

Last August, the NC General Assembly expanded the state’s film tax credit from 15 percent to 25 percent. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Linda Garrou (D-Forsyth), gives film production companies that spend a minimum of $250,000 a 25-percent rebate on in-state expenditures. The law went into effect on Jan. 1. Due to the film tax credit, Clark said she’s now receiving five inquiries a week from film production companies looking to film in the state. With adequate funding, she said., the Piedmont Triad Film Commission would be able to capitalize on this economic opportunity.

“Right now, to have a two-person office would make all the difference in the world to handle this increase in leads,” Clark said. “A lot of times when I’m talking to producers in LA, they’re very familiar with Wilmington, and Wilmington is a fabulous production center in North Carolina and it really puts North Carolina on the map. However, the Piedmont

Triad has a greater variety of locations.

“We’ve got a crew base here, and to have a film commission that is working hard and being proactive about getting the word out to these companies and letting them know all the resources we have available, it’s very necessary,” she continued.

Dannette McCain, program director for Communities in Schools of Forsyth County, advocated for greater funding for her organization. McCain said that Communities in Schools has a presence in 17 schools in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County system, and based on their estimates, 90 percent of the children they serve will graduate high school. McCain cited research studies that show that one high school dropout could cost a community $500,000 over the course of 25 years.

She pointed out that cuts in federal funding could lead to the loss of three to four positions within the local agency that looks to provide a holistic support system for students.

David Smitherman, a representative of the Creative Corridors Coalition, thanked city officials for its matching $50,000 grant to help support the project of transforming highway overpasses in the city into works of public art.

Andrew Rodgers, executive director of the RiverRun International Film Festival, thanked city officials for the $36,500 allocated in the proposed budget for support of the annual film festival held in Winston-Salem. Rodgers said the city’s support of RiverRun and the Piedmont Triad Film Commission is integral to Winston-Salem branding itself as the City of the Arts and Innovation.

“We’re a festival on a scale with Nashville’s festival, Cleveland, Boston — these are our peers — and it’s because of the people who support us that we’re able to be that,” he said.

Other budget highlights include an increase of city employee benefits of $1.25 million to cover health, retirement and workers compensation expenses; a net increase of three fulltime positions to city staff; a 20 percent reduction in the city’s solid waste disposal budget; $250,000 set aside for improvements to the Benton Convention Center; $64.1 million set aside for capital projects; and a fund balance appropriation of nearly $2 million.

The next public hearing on the proposed 2011-2012 budget will be held at the June 20 meeting of the Winston-Salem City Council.