The Elgin Symphony Orchestra might soon be treated like any other cultural arts organization in Elgin.
The Elgin City Council's committee of the whole voted 5-3 on Wednesday to move forward with a plan to require ESO to apply for grant money from the city's cultural arts commission, rather than resume direct funding to ESO.
This was council members' first concrete step after months of discussions about ESO funding. Councilman Richard Dunne was absent.
The cultural arts commission allocates yearly grants up to $8,500, with a total budget of $75,000 for 2013. That's a far cry from the average $125,000 yearly the ESO has received in the past from the city.
The ESO used to get funding from Elgin's riverboat revenues until a couple of years ago, when the city determined those funds would go to human services nonprofits, City Manager Sean Stegall said.
Cultural arts grants usually come with specific requirements regarding performances and more. The commission makes recommendations to the city council, which ultimately allocates the money.
Also under the plan, ESO would have 15 years to repay about $304,000 it owes the city in back rent for the Hemmens Cultural Center and nonprofits would get 50 percent discounts on rental of the Hemmens.
Council members Toby Shaw, John Prigge and Terry Gavin voted against the plan.
"A 15-year repayment on a two-year bill sets a dangerous precedent for anybody who owes a water bill, parking ticket, animal control fine or code violation," Prigge said. He proposed asking for $150,000 from ESO within 60 days, and the rest within a year.
Gavin proposed that ESO repay $100,000 upfront and the rest over 10 years.
"Go to your patrons, the wealthiest of the wealthiest in Elgin, and ask them to pony up the money," he said.
Stegall pointed out the 15-year term was proposed by city staff members upon analysis of ESO's financials.
"If you ask for anything less than 15 years, you are making the probability of default go higher. And if ESO defaults, the probability that the Hemmens defaults goes higher," Stegall said.
Councilwoman Anna Moeller agreed.
"We're cutting off our nose to spite our face," she said.
ESO built up a structural deficit over the years, but it is much more financially stable after cutting costs and negotiating a union contract that calls for salary freezes and fewer concerts, ESO interim CEO David Bearden said.
"We recognize we owe the money. We just want to be stable enough so we can repay it," he said.
Councilwoman Carol Rauschenberger called ESO "an asset."
"How sad would the world be without our art?" she said. "We have something to be proud of, and I think we should work our hardest to make sure they stay here."
Mayor David Kaptain said he plans to propose an increase to the cultural arts grants, which used to be much larger in the past.
ESO will continue to be viable financially even if it only gets $8,500 yearly from the city, Bearden said. "Of course, we hope for more," he said.