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Article updated: 3/15/2013 11:03 AM

Arlington Heights mayoral candidates split on Metropolis funding

By Melissa Silverberg

As Metropolis Performing Arts Centre struggles to get through this fiscal year and anticipates an increase in village funding for next year, one of the three candidates for Arlington Heights mayor has serious concerns about continuing to subsidize the theater.

Ron Drake said that while he values the arts, he doesn't want to see Arlington Heights continue to pour money into the theater year after year without a target date for Metropolis to become self-sufficient.

"I'm in favor of the arts and it is a huge part of the community, but the problem is that the city didn't come to the citizens and ask them if they wanted a performing arts center," said Drake, former mayor of the Arizona suburb of Avondale.

Meanwhile, fellow candidates Mark Hellner and Trustee Tom Hayes both said they believe the money spent on Metropolis -- which comes from food and beverage sales taxes, not property taxes -- is worth the direct and indirect value of having the center in town for years to come.

Arlington Heights took over Metropolis in 2005 and continues to help fund it with an annual subsidy of about $150,000.

"We can't just keep pouring money into it; the citizens aren't going to put up with that," Drake said. "It's a lot of money to be giving to an entity that should be self-sufficient."

According to budget documents dated Feb. 15, Metropolis estimates it will end fiscal year 2013 with a $385,603 deficit.

Executive Director Charlie Beck admits this has been a difficult year for the theater, which he said has been operating beyond its means. Beck himself stopped taking a salary as of Feb. 1 and said he is considering making a donation back to the theater to help get it through the end of this fiscal year.

On Monday the Arlington Heights village board unanimously recommended approval of the budget for Metropolis, which includes $317,000 in village support for fiscal year 2014.

Broken down, the $317,000 includes a slightly higher annual subsidy of $160,000, $32,000 for equipment replacement and $125,000 for capital improvements. The money for capital improvements will come from a $300,000 reserve fund the village set aside for Metropolis last year from the arts and entertainment fund, which is entirely funded by food and beverage sales tax receipts.

Drake said he knows his opinion may not be popular with the board if he is elected April 9.

"If I come in with one vote and eight other people who have been supporting this for years, I don't think it's going to matter much. We are into this thing pretty deep," Drake said. "But I think a lot of people are having an issue with it."

Drake said he doesn't know enough about the Metropolis budget yet to judge when the village should stop funding the theater, but he would like to see a plan with a specific timeline of when the theater would no longer need village support.

Hayes, who has been on the board since 1991 and supported the original decision for the village to become the landlord of Metropolis, has voted for the subsidies each year, and he also voted in 2012 to forgive a $75,000 loan from the village made to the theater when it was experiencing cash-flow problems.

Hayes said he would continue to support Metropolis as long as the village can afford to do so at a "reasonable" level. The funding for fiscal year 2014 is not the highest amount of money the village has given to Metropolis.

"I think it's important we stay out of the management business of the actual theater and put that in the hands of the experts on the board of directors and the executive director," Hayes said. "But Metropolis is a critical part of our community and provides many direct and indirect benefits to our community."

Hellner said he also thinks Metropolis is worth what he called the "modest" support the village provides it because of the direct and indirect revenues it provides for Arlington Heights and because the money is not coming from property taxes.

"We should be appreciative of this valuable business and cultural asset," he said, calling Metropolis a "smart" investment for Arlington Heights.

Beck told the village board that the economic impact of Metropolis Performing Arts Centre on Arlington Heights is about $5 million in revenue each year.

"Obviously it's something that should be examined on a periodic basis," Hellner said of the subsidies. "But if they went under it would create a big hole, and frankly, we have enough small holes to fix around Arlington Heights."

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