According to the Utah State Tax Commision, there are 22 Utah municipalities that levy a .10% sales tax to fund cultural and recreational activities. These towns range in population from Brian Head (118) to Orem (88,328), and the various cities use these funds to supply money to a wide variety of facilities and activities, including local cultural festivals, golf courses, recreational facilities, libraries, and theatre companies.
Cities vary in how they spend their cultural tax funds. Some choose to spend the money themselves; others, such as Cedar City and Orem, award the funds to outside organizations through a grant process. Orem City’s municipal tax is called CARE, which stands for Cultural Art and Recreational Enrichment, and seems typical for the municipal arts and recreation funds around the state. Approved in 2005 by a margin of 58-42, CARE’s $1.83 million total may be the single largest city recreational tax in Utah. The largest share of that money this year, $510,000, was awarded to SCERA. Another recipient of CARE funds in the theatre community was Hale Center Theater Orem, which received $388,000. These two theatre companies received nearly half of all available funds—a much larger proportion than what theatre companies receive from Salt Lake County in ZAP funds.
Tooele also has a local tax to fund the arts and recreation, called PAR (parks, art, and recreation). Tooele’s PAR is the oldest municipal cultural tax in the state, and was approved by voters in 2004 by a margin of 57-43. A renewal vote in 2012 passed by a much larger margin: 72-28. Incidentally, these numbers are almost exactly the same as the results for Salt Lake County’s ZAP votes in 1996 and 2004, which may indicate growing support for local taxes supporting the arts and recreation as citizens experience the benefits of these expenditures. Although Tooele’s PAR tax mostly funds parks and recreational facilities, it has supplied funds for the local LaForge Encore Theatre. PAR funds have also been used to bring the famous Missoula Children’s Theatre to perform in Tooele.
Qualifications for cultural funds vary from city to city. Some have only specific uses enshrined in local laws, while others give government officials more flexibility in dispensing money. Typically, recipients of municipal money must be a non-profit organization and operate mostly within the boundaries of the city that levies the sales tax. However, state law mandates that any organization that receives more than half of its funding from the state cannot receive municipal cultural funds.
Like the ZAP funds that I previously wrote about, most local cultural funds are well spent. A 2010 report from the Utah Legislative Auditor General found that about 85% of sampled expenditures were made in accordance with state law. Moreover, all funds examined by the Auditor General that were awarded to secondary organizations (like the Orem Hale or SCERA) were dispensed in accordance with proper accounting practices, and no questionable expenditures were found. However, it is important to note that state law does not set out any specific accounting methodology for municipal arts funds once the money is awarded to another organization. Therefore, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether the money was properly spent once it leaves the hands of the city. Nevertheless, the Legislative Auditor found that all expenditures from secondary organizations could eventually be accounted for in some way.
In addition to the financially sound use of municipal arts funds, there is evidence that these funds are spent in ways that benefit many Utahns. For example, in 2012 Hale Center Theater Orem used CARE funds to partner with Clear Horizons Academy to establish a performing arts program for children with autism spectrum disorders. “This is a 9-week theatre class for children with autism and their families, a project funded by the City of Orem CARE Program. The class allows students learn and practice skills like flexibility, creativity, and working with others through theatrical activities,” explained Hale Center Theater’s Anne Swenson. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Utah has one of the highest diagnosis rate in the country for autism spectrum disorders, so a program to serve this population of citizens is a justified use of public money. The Orem Hale is also proud that CARE money to provide technical theatre internships to launch the careers of young professionals, which will help students at Utah Valley University launch their careers without leaving the state.
Similarly, SCERA used 2012 CARE funds to help stage their plays, including their acclaimed productions of Little Shop of Horrors and The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley. Money from CARE was also used to partner with Seven Peaks Resort to be included in the resort’s Pass of All Passes program where customers can purchase one pass that gives them discounts on summer activities. This partnership brought in 9,233 patrons to attend All Shook Up and Fiddler on the Roof—almost two-thirds of whom were first time patrons to the SCERA. This represents both a successful outreach program for the theatre company and a use of tax funds that benefited a wide cross-section of Utah County residents. Indeed, according to SCERA’s own data, over 120,000 people attended a SCERA event, with over 40% of those being Orem residents. Additionally, it is important to note that because SCERA is an organization that encompasses nearly all of the arts—not just theatre—the CARE funds they received also benefited projects in local history, music, film, dance, visual arts, and more.