City of Boulder voters will decide in November whether to reauthorize a sales tax and dedicate half the revenue to arts and culture programs. This move would potentially double the funding the city doles out to local arts and culture nonprofit organizations each year.
The measure, 2A, is less controversial than other matters on the ballot this year. But it could have implications for the city’s budget at a time when councilmembers have been searching for additional money to fund other priorities related to housing, transportation and homelessness.
The measure would extend the .15% sales tax — which city officials estimate will generate about $7.3 million in 2024 — for another 20 years beginning Jan. 1, 2025. Currently, this revenue flows into the city’s General Fund, over which the city has broad discretion in terms of spending. The fund also supports core city functions, including policing, firefighting and human services.
The measure would reallocate 50% of the revenue from the sales tax to pay for “arts, culture and heritage purposes including direct and grant funding for arts and culture nonprofits, professional artists, arts education, venues and workspaces, public art, and multicultural programs,” it states. The other half would go into the city’s General Fund.
“We see this as a win-win,” Jan Burton, a member of the committee backing the measure and board member for local arts advocacy organization Create Boulder, told Boulder Reporting Lab.
The arts community in Boulder has long advocated for additional funding. The newly approved 2024 city budget allocates $1.5 million to the city’s Office of Arts and Culture. The city’s 2015 Community Cultural Plan recommended that the city have a $2 million arts budget by 2024 (not accounting for inflation) and consider “alternative funding sources such as dedicated tax or fee programs or mandates on private development.” When the report was published, Boulder’s per capita spending on the arts fell short of comparable cities like Madison, Wisconsin, and Eugene, Oregon.
Ballot Issue 2A would more than double the city’s spending on the arts — up to at least $3.8 million, according to city estimates.
“We can fund arts to an extent that will be transformative and supportive without compromising police, fire, safety, homelessness and other initiatives,” Nick Forster, the founder of eTown, an event venue and multimedia production organization, told councilmembers in August 2023. Forster is one of the petitioners supporting the ballot measure. “These are dollars that enliven and enrich and engage our community,” he added.
The city primarily funds the arts by providing grants to nonprofits throughout the year though the Boulder Arts Commission, a seven-member volunteer board. The grants typically range from $500 to $50,000 and are given out to dozens of nonprofits. The money can be used to pay for staff, events, ticket sales, venue and studio space, and educational programs. The recipients of some of the largest grants are also top financial contributors to the ballot measure committee supporting Ballot Issue 2A, according to campaign finance records.
Burton said the additional grant money will help nonprofits hire full-time directors, raise funds and plan for the future. Moreover, she sees the additional money as a potential boon for the city. According to a report by Americans for the Arts, an arts advocacy organization, the nonprofit arts and culture industry in the City of Boulder generated about $115 million in economic activity in 2022. This is due to direct spending by arts and culture organizations and by visitors who dine out, pay for parking and spend money in other ways when they attend art events, according to the economic impact study.
No formal campaigns registered to oppose Ballot Issue 2A. But it does have its detractors. And it likely would have faced more opposition if not for a compromise with the Boulder City Council.
In June, Arts for Boulder collected enough signatures to place a measure on the 2023 ballot that initially proposed allocating all of the revenue from the .15% sales tax to arts and culture programs.
This would have resulted in a future budget deficit, according to city officials, and required cuts to certain programs. Although city officials have not taken a position on Ballot Issue 2A, earlier this year, they proposed running a separate ballot measure that would have dedicated all of the money to the city’s General Fund.
In light of a potential budget hole, councilmembers began negotiating with the petitioners to modify their proposal. The result was Ballot Issue 2A. A majority of the Boulder City Council agreed to refer the measure to the 2023 ballot with the condition that Arts for Boulder would drop its original petition.
Even so, some community members still believe Ballot Issue 2A goes too far. Dedicating 50% of the sales tax revenue to the arts leaves the city with about $500,000 in additional annual revenue over the next five years to allocate to other programs. That doesn’t leave much wiggle room in a $515 million budget.
“In the event of pandemic, flood, fire or recession, these funds could not be tapped for more immediate human services and safety needs,” Councilmembers Nicole Speer and Mark Wallach wrote in an op-ed in the Daily Camera. “This is neither prudent nor equitable.”
Speer and Wallach wanted the city to run two competing ballot measures instead: one directing all the revenue to the General Fund, and the other allocating all the revenue to the arts. If voters reject 2A this year, they could potentially pass another measure to reauthorize the sales tax next year, as the tax expires at the end of 2024.
Councilmember Matt Benjamin, who helped negotiate the compromise measure with the arts community, acknowledged that the ballot measure could make it harder to fund some of city council’s future priorities. For instance, last month, councilmembers were debating a sanctioned campground for homeless people, also known as a safe outdoor space. A major hurdle for such a project will be finding the money to pay for it.
Benjamin supported the compromise with the arts community. He said it came down to “minimizing risk” to the city’s budget given what appeared to be strong support for additional arts funding.
“These are hard tradeoffs,” Benjamin told Boulder Reporting Lab. “This measure isn’t perfect for everybody. And that’s what compromise is.”