Cultural Council executive defends sales tax plans

Rena Blades, president and chief executive officer of the Cultural Council of the Palm Beaches, defended the process her organization used to determine which institutions should get money from a proposed increase in the county’s 6-cent sales tax.

In a pair of stories published over the weekend, The Palm Beach Post reported that process was rife with secrecy and conflicts of interest and that the current plan for a sales tax hike has tenuous support.

Blades, in an email to county commissioners, objected to The Post’s characterization of the council’s process, saying it has been transparent.

112008marshallINS PBDN Lee Hershfield/8photos Stevens residence John and Rena Blades with Eric Buermann
Rena Blades

“The article insinuates that secrecy and conflicts of interest may have tainted the planning and recommendations made by the Cultural Council for a variety of cultural projects that will be undertaken during the next ten years,” Blades wrote to commissioners. “Though the article implies that decisions were made in secret by a handful of self-interested people, nothing could be farther from the truth. The Cultural Council has worked diligently to be transparent, fair, and forthcoming with information throughout the process and will continue to be responsible stewards.”

The County Commission and the Palm Beach County School Board have been working on a joint plan to raise the sales tax by a penny on the dollar, which would generate $2.7 billion over the next 10 years for upgrades to roads, bridges, schools and county buildings.

At the urging of the Cultural Council, $121 million would be directed to cultural projects.

The School Board is planning to take up the sales tax plan on Wednesday, and commissioners will follow suit with a public hearing on April 19.

The full text of Blades’ letter to the County Commission:

April 4, 2016

Dear Commissioners-

The Palm Beach Post article of April 3, 2016 related to the portion of the sales tax initiative dedicated to cultural facilities has many inaccuracies, which I would like to clarify.

The article insinuates that secrecy and conflicts of interest may have tainted the planning and recommendations made by the Cultural Council for a variety of cultural projects that will be undertaken during the next ten years. Though the article implies that decisions were made in secret by a handful of self-interested people, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The Cultural Council has worked diligently to be transparent, fair, and forthcoming with information throughout the process and will continue to be responsible stewards. Over the last year and half the task force formed by the Cultural Council engaged in a thoughtful, deliberate, time-consuming process of research and consideration, resulting in the recommendations made to County Commissioners.

A brief summary of why the process was created may be helpful. Several years ago the Cultural Council recognized that many of our cultural organizations were planning capital projects and were poised to grow significantly during the next decade. The Cultural Council recognized in its capacity as the lead supporter for all arts and cultural organizations in Palm Beach County that it could be helpful to its member organizations by first working to identify the needs of ALL cultural organizations in our county. To that end, an exhaustive study was done, criteria were established, and a list of projects was developed.

The Cultural Council has insured the process was kept transparent each step along the way, publishing results when the study was completed, sharing the process with the Tourist Development Council (a public forum) and cultural executives, and sharing results with both the media and elected officials.

During the process, which involved a number of experts both local and national, it became clear that a cooperative effort involving the County, the School Board, Cities and the Cultural Council would produce a ballot initiative most likely to be approved by the voters. A variety of polling and surveys, along with the knowledge of other communities passing similar initiatives, made it clear that “One county, one plan, one penny” would prevail, and would avoid the possibility of two competing initiatives, one of which would almost certainly fail. Many months of negotiations among the three groups and the 38 municipalities, with sacrifices made by all involved, resulted in an agreement that was adopted by every group involved. That, in itself was an amazing accomplishment demonstrating the broad support that exists in our county for this cooperative initiative.

The implication by the Post that there have been “behind closed door” negotiations and plotting is disappointing and completely false. At every turn, the Cultural Council has worked hard to open its process to the public, at the same time negotiate a fair percentage among the partners. Four times the cultural groups agreed to reduce its percentage from 10% to 7.5% to 6.5% and finally to 4.5%. Along the way, the task force engaged in further scrutiny of proposed plans and as a consequence adjustments were made.

The reporting by the Post is irresponsible, both because of the inaccuracies and because of the facts left out, this despite more than six hours of meetings with Post reporters and sharing of hundreds of pages of information they requested including: tax returns, working papers, and survey results. When the Post requested meetings, cultural and business leaders were happy to meet with them and provide them with almost everything they requested. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the cultural community to provide the Post with the facts, the Post still got it wrong in the following ways:

The Post continues to refer to the cultural organizations on the list as private organizations and further to insinuate they will pocket money with no public benefit. The true nature of these organizations is that they are community based educational organizations heavily supported by private donations, which make their services and programs more accessible to everyone. A small public investment, like the one recommended in the sales tax initiative, is a typical strategy used for economic development purposes. The vast majority of the capital and programmatic costs will continue to be underwritten through private philanthropy. In fact, the plan guarantees that for every dollar of public funding invested, at least two dollars of private funding will be invested.

There were no secret meetings to develop the list of cultural organizations that might receive funding. The Council undertook a thorough Needs Assessment in a variety of areas, one of which involved future capital projects. A series of meetings then occurred to consider whether public funding, like strategies used elsewhere in the Nation, could and should be deployed here. Through those meetings and with the help of experts, a plan was developed. The Post reporters were welcomed to all meetings they requested to attend. Furthermore, Council Board meetings are publically noticed and the regional meetings were advertised widely.

The Post article suggested a significant number of board members of the Council also sit on other Boards of cultural organizations, whose projects ended up on a recommended list. In fact, 17 of the 23 organizations that will receive funding for projects share no board members with the Cultural Council. As is the case with all nonprofits, the Cultural Council board members are volunteers who receive no compensation for their service to our community. Cultural organizations were asked through a survey and in meetings to provide information about their anticipated capital expansion projects. If they provided details for these projects that fit the Task Force’s predetermined criteria, they were placed on the recommended list. The Board and the Task Force made no judgments about one project over another nor prioritized one above another. They simply compared capital project details to the criteria in order to determine eligibility.

The three projects the Post singled out that have been recommended to receive a combined total of $33.3 million are the largest projects, which will have the greatest economic impact. Every cultural organization receiving funding will be required to raise at least one dollar for every dollar of funding received through the tax initiative. Any organization that does not first raise the matching private funding will not receive the public funding. The public funding is “last money in” and is only made available after receipts are submitted and verified.

The Post reported the Norton Museum did no need the funding. However, the truth is that of all the projects on the recommended list the Norton’s is the farthest along in planning and execution and the largest in scale and budget. If public funds are not invested, there is a real potential, in a project as large and complicated as the Norton, that it would be scaled back, delayed, or critical components like more educational space removed. For these reasons and the fact that a high profile architectural project and outstanding fine art museum will attract tourism and business relocations the Norton Museum, the Task Force believes the Norton Museum absolutely belongs on the list. No funds are allowed to be expended on anything other than capital improvements.

The Post article reported that smaller organizations, like the Spady Museum and Milagro Center, had been denied a place on the list of recommended projects. The truth is that NO organizations were denied inclusion on the list, provided they met the criteria and presented a capital budget for their project. The Spady Museum participated in the assessment and indicated they planned some sort of capital work over the next decade but were unable at this time to provide the necessary details and no budget was submitted, even after the Council contacted them directly requesting more details. The Milagro Center is an afterschool program, which has no cultural facility as defined by the criteria. And, while they integrate arts into their programs, their primary mission is not arts and cultural programming. Projects like the Spady Museum are exactly why the Council recommended an Opportunity Fund, to which cultural facilities could apply when they did have all the details to their projects in the next decade, but the Opportunity Fund was eliminated as part of the negotiations with the County, School District, and 38 municipalities. No cultural organization was removed from the list without their knowledge and agreement.

The Post article reported that lobbyists and political strategists were hired to influence the process. Indeed, the Cultural Council did the prudent thing in bringing expertise in all areas in order to insure a successful outcome for all partners. Consultants employed included more than those listed in the article. The Americans for the Arts, an attorney specializing in ballot initiatives, and a planner/facilitator were also hired for this complex, important project. No prudent organization would, or should move forward with such a complicated project without the necessary expertise and knowledge. These expert consultants have greatly assisted in the research necessary to undertake a major community effort, through polling and educating the County, School District, municipalities, business groups and the public.

The Post reported that the County and school board had to cut back on their construction projects to include cultural facilities. This is simply false. None of the partners cut back construction projects as a result of the inclusion of cultural facilities in this plan. After completing their own vetting processes, just as the cultural community had, the School District’s and the County’s project lists are whole and exactly what they stated they needed.

The Post article stated that the criteria for the recommended list was drafted by the Council Board. In fact, the criteria referred to by the Post was not drafted by the Cultural Council Board in secret meetings. Rather, it was drafted by the Council’s professional staff, who did extensive research on models for capital funding programs for cultural facilities from around the country and then presented to the Board for consideration and deliberation. The Task Force then recommended changes and alterations to strengthen the process and list of recommendations

The Cultural Council strongly believes it is time to move forward with placing this initiative on the ballot in order to insure there is sufficient time to mount a campaign to thoroughly inform the voters who will otherwise only receive information from opponents and a media interested in promoting controversy. We’ve come so far together, and we are looking forward to honoring all the hard work thus far and the wonderful opportunities this investment in our county bring to our fellow citizens and visitors from around the world. It’s time to move forward with allowing the people to decide.

Please don’t hesitate to call me with any questions you may have


Rena Blades, CEO, Cultural Council of Palm Beach County

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