Arts community rallies as Lackawanna County Commissioner Laureen Cummings looks to cut and control arts funding
Cummings, who founded the Scranton Tea Party before being elected the Republican minority commissioner in 2015, said at yesterday’s bi-weekly commissioners meeting in Scranton and in a Times-Tribune interview published today that she is interested in cutting part of the arts funding, particularly to the three “anchor institutions” – the Lackawanna County Library System, Scranton Cultural Center, and the Everhart Museum – in hopes of allocating the money to the general fund, where some of it could still be used for the arts, but the commissioners would have more control over what programs are paid for.
Despite this, she thanked Deputy Director of Arts and Culture Maureen McGuigan on Wednesday for combing through stacks of paperwork and explaining to the commissioners what each arts allocation in Lackawanna County’s 2017 budget would be for while also thanking her fellow commissioners for working with her on changes being made to it this year, including moving $175,000 from library system programs to a fund that will be used for library equipment, renovations, etc. that the commissioners control. It is unclear if she would have enough support from her fellow commissioners to make further changes.
“It’s not that I don’t believe in the Arts and Culture program itself, you know that. I think that we should have an arts and culture [fund], but that it should be a part of the general fund. That 1 mill should be combined. But I appreciate all your work. Thank you,” Cummings said to McGuigan during the meeting.
“I’ve had a lot of positive feedback [on the budget changes], I have a few negative, but it’s something that I think that we need to look at further. We have worked with the Everhart Museum and the Scranton Cultural Center, and they’re working on more programs to help facilitate more funding for themselves so they can help taxpayers out as well.”
Cummings believes that these organizations should be working to find other ways to finance their programs without county taxes, though the 12-year-old 1 mill tax equates to only $12 each year per typical single-family household. She said that taxpayers should fund certain programs, but not others that she doesn’t agree with.
The news spread quickly through social media, with local actors, musicians, writers, business owners, and other supporters of the arts expressing their disagreement and disgust with even the idea of cutting arts programs that they feel are integral to the community and the local economy.
Conor O’Brien, co-founder of the annual Scranton Fringe Festival that receives some county funds, started a petition on change.org today to “Save Arts & Culture in Lackawanna County” that already has over 300 signatures. He is also encouraging citizens to contact the county directly by calling 570-963-6800 or e-mailing the chief of staff at email@example.com and the commissioners at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Commissioner Cummings is discussing a vibrant and productive cultural scene in broad strokes. I am glad to hear she appreciates certain elements of the programming available. However, I feel due credit is not being given to how much foot traffic, retail revenue, and other commercial benefits the arts bring to our region,” O’Brien told NEPA Scene.
“Citing downtown Scranton as one example, one must simply attend an event such as the Scranton Fringe Festival or First Friday or even such standards as the St. Patrick’s Day Parade to see the life (in the hyperbolic and literal) it brings.”
In addition to the aforementioned programs and institutions, the petition lists theater groups, festivals, art galleries, and more that receive county funds that could be in danger if commissioners – in current or future administrations – decide they should be defunded.
“This is your neighbor learning how to read. This is a child discovering a medium that allows them to no longer fear who they are. This is a professional theater production (or dozens) being presented in Lackawanna County, be it touring or from our own regional talent,” O’Brien wrote on the petition page.
“There are things this fund allows she ‘likes’ and others ‘she doesn’t.’ As we are seeing on the national level, the personal dictations of an individual is what will quickly lead to the exclusion of voices different than those in power.”
O’Brien intends to rally support and present a statement to the commissioners during their next meeting. He’ll likely have plenty of supporters behind him.
“As a lifelong citizen of Lackawanna County, I emphatically oppose Commissioner Cummings. I find it disheartening that she would take away a critical financial resource to our arts and cultural life. Arts and culture has been the pulse of our community for years. We have lost so much in other areas affecting qualities of life. To take this away is a grave mistake. Don’t allow her to destroy any hope of keeping what’s left of our younger population and the future they can build through arts and culture,” Maria Santomauro of Scranton wrote publicly on the petition page.
“Beyond the fairly obvious intellectual, education, and cultural outcomes produced by arts programming across a wide spectrum of the regional population, the arts are most assuredly an ‘economic engine.’ The organizations that benefit from this relatively small per household tax create events and programming that bring thousands of people into the city over the course of the year, and they in turn spend on parking and in downtown businesses. This type of ‘arts incentive’ via a small tax is a proven model for stimulating business and community interest in many cities around the nation. In my opinion, eliminating the funding runs completely contrary to proven models in economic and community development,” Ward Roe of Dalton posted.
“I am involved in several arts organizations in Lackawanna County and know how important these funds are for keeping them alive. As an actress and artist, I would be heartbroken to see these places close due to a lack of funding. The nominal tax keeps them on their feet and adds culture to an area that would be lacking without it,” April Holgate of Moosic said.
“I, like many other Scrantonians, owe everything to the arts and music education we received through the Scranton School District. I am one of countless musicians that has made a career for decades because of the education I received locally. I owe my successful career to this area. We have a rich history of theater, arts, and music,” Josette Miles of Scranton added.
“The arts and culture in Lackawanna County is probably the most important thing the valley has going for them. The countless events that are funded bring out-of-towners to our city and encourage them to spend at small businesses around the area. Personally, I have been involved in many events within the community and I see first hand the impact arts and culture make on our small coal town,” Timothy Roxby of Scranton wrote.
Last year, Cummings drew public ire for a series of comments she made on Facebook that were criticized as “bigoted,” “homophobic,” and “transphobic” by local LGBT activists, including NEPA Scene columnist Dee Culp back in April of 2016. Cummings, who rejected LGBT “sensitivity training” offered by those activists, has continued expressing these views at places like Dickson City Council, where she questioned an LGBT ordinance in July of 2016, and her commissioner Facebook page, posting a video from the Dickson City Council meeting and an article against transgender “bathroom laws.”
by Rich Howells
Rich is an award-winning journalist, longtime blogger, photographer, and podcast host. He is the founder and editor of NEPA Scene.