ROCHESTER — Two members of Rochester City Council are proposing to increase financial support for the Rochester Civic Theater beyond the group’s $75,000 request.
“I think it shows a good commitment on our part that we value what they’re doing and that they get to work with other groups,” Councilor Shaun Palmer said Wednesday of a recommendation to increase funding to $125,000 for 2023 raise. “If they can do that, that’s a good thing for Rochester.”
The recommendation comes after the council reduced funding to $15,000 this year after years of financial struggle and change for the group, which operates out of a city building.
The nonprofit was close to losing its lease at the Mayo Civic Center in 2020 but is now reporting better financials.
“At the end of the fiscal year, which ended just two weeks ago, we have less than $40,000 in long-term debt with our bank. That’s it,” said Erich Heneke, the Civic’s senior accountant. “Everything else is current, no outstanding debts greater than 30 days.”
In addition, he said the nonprofit strayed from its liabilities exceeding assets by $170,000 in 2021 and that assets outweighed liabilities by approximately $300,000 in its July 31 annual report, which is currently under review – Dollars predominate.
The group has received payroll and operational support from the federal government amid the COVID pandemic, and Heneke said financial liabilities related to the funding would be wiped off the nonprofit’s books.
It’s a drastic change since Rochester City Council announced the organization in 2020.
The organization’s 2019 fiscal year ended with an overdraft on its treasury accounts by nearly $60,000, and in 2020 questions about a $300,000 unsecured loan and unpaid debts prompted the city to call down funding.
Since then, several board members have been replaced and the organization’s 10 full-time employees have been cut. Misha Johnson also became the theater’s full-time executive director, and the organization ended the practice of hiring professional actors.
Additionally, the Civic has opened its doors to a variety of community organizations, including other theater groups, to provide stage time and resources for events.
Johnson said the new focus has put community organizing on a solid path, with bookings for the next two years and community groups sharing the space on a daily basis.
“I don’t see it as competition,” she said. “I see it as adding more art for the citizens.”
The City Council has approved various levels of funding for the performing arts organization annually, peaking in 2017 at $280,000.
While COVID-related pressures have curtailed some local funding in recent years, a change in the operation of the Mayo Civic Center also reduced the city’s direct funding for the theater company.
The new operating model shifted maintenance and custodial responsibilities to the civic center operators, rather than tenants having to bear their own costs. With other services also combined, the city adjusted funding, resulting in a $15,000 contribution to the Civic Theater that year.
Johnson said the Civic Theater board requested $75,000 to fund staffing needs, which are largely related to duties associated with other community groups using the space.
The Civic Theater currently has two full-time employees and eight part-time employees, and Johnson said the goal is to move at least two full-time positions.
Any additional funding, she said, would help increase work with community organizations and could be used to bring new performance opportunities to the city.
Councilor Mark Bransford, who joined Palmer in recommending a $125,000 contribution for 2023, said the Civic Theater’s turnaround has been impressive and he hopes the effort will grow.
The recommendation does not guarantee City Council approval, and Councilor Molly Dennis opposed the move, not knowing exactly what the funds would offer.
“I’m all for increasing the budget if possible,” she said. “I’m just feeling a little taken aback that I don’t have the data on how this is affecting other things.”
As one of the three members of the Council’s External Agencies Oversight Committee, she also said she feared strengthening the recommendation could set a precedent for other groups to expect more funding.
Bransford noted that the proposed funding would be in line with what other groups working in city bodies are already receiving.
City Manager Alison Zelms said the issue could be discussed with the full council on Monday when she reviews her 2023 budget recommendations, but the potential budgetary impact of the requested funding boost remains uncertain until more work is done.
The Oversight Committee, which reviews the finances of all nonprofit organizations that occupy city buildings or receive more than $100,000 in city financial contributions, will meet on Wednesday, August 24 at 2:00 p.m. with representatives from RNeighbors and 125 Live.
What happened: Rochester City Council’s Outside Agency Oversight Commission met with representatives from the Rochester Civic Theater to discuss the city’s financial status, operations and potential financial contribution for 2023.
Why is that important: Operated by city-owned spaces affiliated with the Mayo Civic Center, the Rochester Civic Theater has struggled financially in recent years.
What’s next: The city council decides on the financing as part of the budget process.