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The State of NoVa
Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 04/06/2012

Nonprofit dinners come with side of politics, taxpayer dollars in Prince William and Manassas


Dancers from Manassas Ballet Theatre rehearse for “The Nutcracker” opening Dec. 8 at the Hylton Performing Arts Center. (Sarah Lane - The Washington Post)

The City of Manassas, which recently debated how to fairly allocate funds to area nonprofit agencies, has purchased a table for $2,000 at a fundraising dinner for the Manassas Ballet Theatre — an organization with close ties to some in city government.

The ballet’s executive director is City Council member Mark Wolfe (R), and its artistic director is Wolfe’s wife, Amy. Manassas Mayor Harry J. “Hal” Parrish II (R) and council member Sheryl L. Bass sit on the ballet’s board of directors. Bass is president of the board of directors, according to the organization’s recent public tax returns.

Greg Letiecq, a conservative blogger and city and Prince William County activist, said the issue of the ballet and government funding of area nonprofit groups has been “bubbling up” for years.

“You can’t always say, ‘Yes, it’s corruption,’ ” Letiecq said of the ballet’s ties to city officials. “But does it look good? At least this signifies an appearance of impropriety.”

He said that, given perennial debates over core government functions in tough economic times, the issue is getting more scrutiny from city and county residents. “At this time, taxpayer dollars are being used to hand out . . . dinners to elected officials? I have a problem with that.”

But Wolfe deflected the criticism, saying that he and other council members who support the ballet had no role in the city purchasing a table at the ballet’s eighth annual formal Black and White Ball. The city has bought a table for the past eight years — before he, Parrish or Bass were on the City Council, he said.

And, he said, although the cost of the May 5 gala at the Center for the Arts at the Candy Factory on Battle Street is $100 a person, spending $2,000 for an eight-seat table is the standard corporate rate. According to the invitation, the $2,000 rate also includes eight tickets to a production of “Swan Lake” and a “meet the dancers” reception after the performance.

Bass and Parrish could not be reached for comment.

Although his wife receives an annual salary of $36,000 for performing 20 hours of work per week as the ballet’s artistic director, Wolfe’s position is unpaid, according to the organization’s 2010 public tax return.

Wolfe, who is up for reelection on the council May 1, said he wonders whether the queries into the city’s contribution was aimed at hurting his candidacy.

“I think the timing is somewhat obvious, and you can see through this just as well as I can,” Wolfe said. “I have not used the council as a tool to get more dollars for the ballet.”

The city has also purchased tables at other fundraising dinners, including at the Center for the Arts and Casa of Greater Prince William, he said.

The Washington Post has reported that, according to a budget document, since fiscal 2006, the ballet has received $138,000, or 11 percent, of Manassas’s $1.2 million allocation for all nonprofit organizations.

The ballet has also received support from the county. Since fiscal 2005, Manassas Ballet has obtained $386,677 from the county, or 24.5 percent of its $1.6 million allocation for arts groups over that time.

In addition to his role as the ballet’s executive director, Wolfe is the president of the county arts council, a group that advocates for the arts in the region and is affiliated with the county Park Authority. Because county grants are doled out by an independent arts panel, Wolfe’s position on the council does not affect whether the ballet receives county money, officials have said.

A city committee has recommended that the ballet receive $17,000 next year. That amount is the second-highest proposed among similar groups. The committee, made up of two City Council members, Jonathan L. Way (R) and J. Steven Randolph (I), recommended $33,000 for the Center for the Arts. Those proposals, among other items, are expected to be taken up during a budget markup session Wednesday.

John A. Budesky, who in February was appointed city manager and started last month, said the funding for the dinners came out of the city manager’s budget — a $15,000 fund set aside by his predecessor, Larry Hughes.

He said the city’s funding of nonprofits — in both the city manager’s and the city’s budgets — is something he is “definitely reviewing.”

A more extensive review would probably take place during the next budget cycle, he said. “We can do . . . a better job of understanding what outcomes we’re getting from these contributions,” Budesky said.

The ballet fundraiser isn’t the only upcoming gala receiving money from city coffers this year.

Manassas is also spending $3,000 on a table that seats 10 for a fundraiser that benefits the Hylton Performing Arts Center. The gala, according to a letter sent to sponsors, benefits the Sen. Charles J. Colgan Community Arts Benefit Fund. The fund launched last year to “assist in making the Hylton Center and its resources available to local and regional performing arts groups,” according to the event invitation.

Colgan (D), a state senator, has long represented the area.

The county has not purchased a table at the ballet or the Hylton event, said Nikki Brown, a county spokeswoman. However, county officials have received two tables at the Hylton fundraiser since 2009 for its annual support of $2.1 million.

Manassas gives $319,000 annually to Hylton. George Mason University, Brown said, also makes annual allocations. The university’s Prince William campus is the site of the Hylton Performing Arts Center, which also hosts Manassas Ballet performances.

The letter for the Hylton event was sent to Budesky from Prince William Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large).

The letter says that the Hylton fundraiser, also on May 5, includes a reception, an “elegant dinner” and a show featuring Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell.

It is unclear which officials will attend the two fundraisers. The mayor and council members were sent e-mails from the city manager’s office last week inviting each and a guest to attend either event.

By  |  11:00 AM ET, 04/06/2012

 
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