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Article updated: 7/10/2013 10:55 PM

Elgin looks at financial help for symphony

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A majority of Elgin City Council members are willing to look at options to support financially the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, although what that will mean moving forward remains unclear.

Councilman Terry Gavin cast the lone dissenting vote on a motion asking council members to formally state their willingness during a committee of the whole meeting Wednesday night.

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ESO owes about $304,000 in back rent to the city for use of the Hemmens Cultural Center. The symphony stopped paying in summer 2011, when Elgin announced that nonprofits would not get subsidies and would have to start applying for grants from the city.

Two weeks ago, City Manager Sean Stegall proposed a plan that would reduce the debt to about $243,700, after a discount retroactive to September 2012. ESO would have 15 years to repay the money, with an interest rate adjusted annually mirroring the city's borrowing rates.

Fifteen years is much too long, Gavin said.

"That's maybe three councils out (in election cycles,)," he said. "They let this thing accumulate, accumulate and continue to accumulate," he said.

Councilman Toby Shaw echoed that concern, saying, "We don't know the future of the Hemmens, and we don't know the future of the symphony either, 15 years out."

Stegall pointed out that municipalities commonly issue 15- or 30-year bonds.

Elgin's average contribution to the ESO historically has been about $125,000 per year, always using riverboat fund money. Adjusted for current riverboat revenues, that would be about $75,000, Stegall said.

Councilman John Prigge said he wants ESO to settle its debt before resuming any kind of financial subsidy, though he's in favor of rental discounts. "I am excited about their future, but I want this (debt) settled," he said.

Councilwoman Tish Powell also said she was leery of giving ESO financial support while it owes money to the city.

But Councilwoman Carol Rauschenberger said those are separate issues.

"I believe there should be a repayment, but I believe we should help them succeed as a cultural artistic enterprise in Elgin," she said.

Councilman John Steffen proposed cutting the ESO's debt in half, because it didn't get any money from the city in the last two years. Moving forward, the city could forgive the debt altogether, but in turn give ESO a lower contribution of $65,000.

Councilwoman Anna Moeller said she'd like to know how much ESO needs from the city in order to survive financially.

However, Stegall said that's impossible to figure out without knowing how much the symphony will get from fundraising and other revenue sources.

"On paper, it appears that they can't survive," he added.

After running deficits of up to $700,000 in the last couple of years, the ESO balanced its current budget and projects a balanced budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, ESO officials said.

"It's baby steps, but important baby steps," Stegall said about Wednesday's discussion.

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