Manassas, accused of favoritism, rethinking arts funding process

January 22, 2012

Like most local governments, those of Manassas and surrounding Prince William County are having to make do with less in these hard economic times.

With resources scarce, the race for what’s available has become more pointed, especially among community arts groups and other small nonprofits. Accusations of favoritism have crept into the competition, most notably from supporters of the struggling Prince William County Symphony.

“People really would like to have this orchestra,” but changes need to be made to the funding system, said David Montgomery, the orchestra’s conductor and executive director.

On Monday night, the Manassas City Council is expected to take up how it funds arts groups and other nonprofits.

The symphony has suffered internal turmoil and financial difficulties since 2009, when it sharply curtailed its schedule. But well before then, the organization’s leaders say, it had become clear that they would be getting fewer dollars from the county, a primary funding source. The funding system, the symphony’s leaders said, unfairly favors some groups, and, ultimately, the symphony opted not to reapply for money.

As Prince William — which has been a major supporter of the Center for the Arts at the Candy Factory in Manassas and the Manassas Ballet Theatre — confronts criticism of its system, Manassas officials are grappling with similar questions.

Montgomery, in arguing that the city’s system isn’t fair, notes that Manassas City Council member Mark D. Wolfe (R) heads the ballet as its unpaid executive director. His wife, Amy, is the group’s paid artistic director. Mark Wolfe is also head of the Prince William County Arts Council, a part of the county park authority.

The authority, an independent entity funded by the county, is the same body that appoints a citizen panel to fund arts groups that apply for grants.

Since fiscal 2005, the ballet has received a total of $386,677 from the county, or 24.5 percent of the county’s $1.6 million allocation for arts groups over that time period. Since fiscal 2006, the ballet has received $138,000, or 11 percent of the city’s $1.2 million allocation for all nonprofits, according to budget documents.

Wolfe and others say the ballet is a strong organization, with well-attended fundraisers and a supportive community that appreciates the high level of performance the group offers. Wolfe said his roles as head of the ballet and the arts council do not conflict. He competes for the grants, he said, along with everyone else.

“We have played straight and fair,” Wolfe said. “I don’t make the rules.”

Although they are under the same umbrella, the two entities are separate, said Kathy Bentz, a part-time consultant for the park authority on arts issues.

County rules mandate that groups are not to receive more than 20 percent of their income from the county’s coffers. The Manassas Ballet’s income is good, making it more attractive for the county grant’s process, Wolfe and Bentz said. The ballet received $781,776 in public support in fiscal 2009, according to its public tax return.

The symphony, however, wanted to offer reduced prices and free student tickets. The county should consider those efforts, not revenue, symphony leaders said. “What we’ve been advocating is it’s not how much revenue you can raise, but what you’re doing to improve the quality of life in the community,” said Bob Pugh, a former symphony board member.

The city has few metrics in place to guide its decision-making. Wolfe said a better system would be to grade grants with a defined methodology.

Wolfe said he writes the ballet’s grants, but his wife presents them on the organization’s behalf to the City Council. Wolfe abstains from voting on those allocations, but he does vote on the full budget. Manassas Mayor Harry J. “Hal” Parrish II (R) and council member Sheryl L. Bass sit on the ballet’s board of directors.

The county’s system — appointing a group of residents to oversee the arts process — theoretically insulates the Board of County Supervisors from allocating money to nonprofits and arts groups directly. (Supervisors often dip into their discretionary funds, however, to allocate money directly to nonprofits.)

Board Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) said that given the orchestra’s criticism — and the amount of funds city organizations receive — the system should be scrutinized and possible improvements made. “It sure would be nice if most of the money Prince William County taxpayers are paying toward these arts organizations had the Prince William County name on them,” Stewart said. “I don’t believe the arts grants process is broken, but I certainly do think there’s room for improvement and we should be looking at it.”

Wolfe said he would like Manassas to remove the City Council from the process by appointing a grants panel of volunteers, as the county does. The council will take up such a proposal Monday.

Council member Marc T. Aveni (R) said, however, that the city’s elected leaders should not remove themselves from the process. “I think the more open you can be with taxpayer dollars, the better,” he said.

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