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A Taxing Situation for Chicago Culture

By Justin Sondak in Arts & Entertainment on May 15, 2006 8:40PM

fieldmus.JPGA Civic Federation study released today makes recommendations that promise relief for major cultural institutions in fiscal decline since 2001 and overburdened property owners who have been whining for even longer. The study tracked a dozen major cultural organizations linked to Museums in the Park and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, including the Field Museum, the Shedd, the Brookfield Zoo, and the DuSable Museum, and discovered a major economic engine whose 2004 attendance was almost twice that of Chicago’s six major sports teams (note: the NHL was idle that year and debate persists whether the Blackhawks really matter anymore). But rising costs and declining attendance came as state and local subsidies were cut considerably. Between 2001-2004, the Museums in the Park saw subsidies from the Chicago Park District cut by more than 13% and from the State cut by 9%.

For some perspective, the study (in PDF format) cited the success of new cultural taxes towards sustaining larger cultural organizations in Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh and Kansas City. And since none of us want to be outdone by Kansas City, the study’s Task Force recommends implementing an agreement between the County, the Forest Preserve District, the Chicago Park District, and the City to levy a quarter of a percent county sales tax to help fund the Museums and the Park District. That’s an estimated $120-125 million in new revenue, which those institutions will split according to an agreed-upon formula. In return, the Park District and Forest Preserve District will cut property taxes by over $26 million.

Sounds good, but the Task Force still have a few hurdles to clear:

  • We can’t be the only ones seeing a potential turf war among city and county arms, especially since we’re not really sure who’s in charge of County government.

  • Progressives may see raising the sales tax in the name of lowering the property tax as an undue burden on poor and working-class folks. Why force a family to budget more for necessities just so some guy in Kenilworth gets a break?

  • The John Birch libertarian types hate any new taxes and may go ballistic at paying an extra $25-50/year for services they don’t use, money no doubt better spent on lobbyists advocating smaller government.

  • Political affiliations aside, bitching about taxes has been a vital part of the American character since a hearty crew of colonists, likely under the influence of Sam Adams’ liquid courage, tossed a few crates of Earl Grey into the Boston Harbor. So raising the sales tax again can be a hard sell, even if it’s only an extra penny per $4.

  • Math is hard! Do you round up and collect the penny on a $3 purchase? What about $2.50?

We see this proposal’s potential, but predict that a few more backs will have to be scratched, a few more wheels greased, and a few more secret deals cut before its implementation.

Field Museum image via rachelleb