Public art is great, but other things come first
By TIM WEST email@example.com March 5, 2013 8:04PM
Updated: April 7, 2013 6:06AM
Whether you like it or don’t, you have to admit that the Century Walk has been a rousing success.
The plan for Century Walk, the brainchild of local attorney Brand Bobosky, was to put 30 pieces of art throughout town. The pieces feature a lot of the town’s notables. For instance, Mayor A. George Pradel, a former Naperville police officer, was “Officer Friendly” in the schools for many years, so a sculpture near Washington Junior High School, shows the mayor and a school child.
Overall, the public art pieces help keep our city attached to its history.
Funding for the pieces over the years has come from both the private sector and the city of Naperville, through SECA — the special events and cultural amenities fund that gets its money from the city’s 1 percent additional sales tax on restaurant food and beverages.
That has been a success as well, with those who eat and drink in Naperville pouring about $3 million a year into the fund to help pay for special events and other cultural amenities.
But since its inception, the SECA fund has been a source of some controversy, both among council members and the organizations that clamor for tax money to support whatever they are doing.
From the beginning, there have been those who maintain that the city shouldn’t even be in the business of funding culture and objected to the SECA tax when the council voted originally to levy it.
To some, giving the city another pot of money to distribute didn’t seem like a good idea from the get-go. Someday, to be sure, that 1 percent tax will become a 2 percent or 3 percent one. That’s just the way government works.
And the city has on occasion used some of this largesse for purposes that have nothing to do with cultural amenities.
For instance, when the city had trouble balancing its books in the recession — remember those layoffs of policemen — it transferred some $750,000 to the general fund.
It also has used $600,000 to help pay off its loan to the Millennium Carillon, which seems appropriate to me, but since the carillon always has been controversial in and of itself, it makes an easy target for those who don’t think the SECA fund, or any fund for that matter, should help pay for it.
And recently the city has considered using SECA funds to help bolster social services.
The city also is contemplating using $825,000 from the fund to help pay down its pension obligations. This proposed use of the SECA funds, to be sure, is outside the parameters for which it was established, rankles Bobosky, and I would think other Century Walk board members as well.
Bobosky sent off a letter to the council — something which he is quite adept at doing — complaining that using SECA funds is akin to robbing Peter to pay Paul.
He’s right of course, and in an ideal world, the city would be taking some of its $6 million budget surplus to restore money taken from the SECA fund.
But it’s not an ideal world, governments are strapped, and it’s not just the state that has serious pension problems.
Moreover, as Councilman Grant Wehrli wrote in a response to Bobosky over putting more SECA money into social services, Century Walk was supposed to be 30 pieces of art, and there are people who “need help way more than we need another bronze sculpture anywhere.”
I think Wehrli is right on this.
Yes, SECA should be used to fund the arts, but in its struggles with the budget the last few years, and with pensions being a pervasive problem in Illinois, the city needs to spread the wealth around.
I like public art a lot, and also appreciate cultural events in general, but for the city, fulfilling its pension obligations, providing basic services and helping people have to come first.