David and Art - "Voting for the Arts"

Nov 23, 2020

Even in times of economic troubles, some cities are choosing to use tax dollars to support their local arts scene.

In Jersey City, New Jersey earlier this month, the election was not just about Biden vs Trump. Voters there had before them the question of a new tax that, if they approved it, they would soon be paying.

And approve it they did, perhaps unlikely enough in today’s climate.  What’s more is that the second largest city in New Jersey has now become that state’s first to establish a municipal tax that will go to support the arts.  Estimates are that it could generate between $1 and 2 million per year. A city arts committee will make decisions about where the money will go.

The Jersey City mayor has worked for two years to get this referendum on the general election ballot.  He didn’t want to just stick a line for funding the arts into the city budget.  Doing that would make it too vulnerable to arbitrary

 cuts. “When you get into tough times, the first thing that is cut is the arts” said mayor Stephen Fulop. “We wanted to create something that is secure no matter the financial state of the city.”

Earlier this year the state legislature passed a new law that for the first time allows cities to create this kind of tax—up to 2 cents per $100–to help their own arts scenes.

The Jersey City Republican Party opposed the measure as nothing more than an excuse to raise your property tax, as if the money weren’t going to be spent on a civic good.  The tax rate itself would only amount to an extra $25 a year if you lived in a half-a-million-dollar house.  But it passed with the backing of 64% of voters.

“This should slam the door on anyone thinking that the arts is an extra, a bonus, the first thing that should be cut,” said Robinson Holloway, the former chair of the Jersey City Arts Council.  He hopes that other municipalities will follow Jersey City’s lead.

Some officials doubted whether this was really the best time to go to the voters with a new tax but, like in the entire country, arts organizations are being hurt badly by the ongoing pandemic and by prohibitions on gatherings the size of an audience for a symphony concert, a dance performance, or a play.  Holloway said that waiting until 2021 would mean a lot of the city’s arts groups would simply go under.

A year ago this month, voters in Charlotte, NC voted down a quarter-cent sales tax increase that would have gone to help the city’s arts organizations as well as its public parks.  Such a defeat for the arts at the polls is inevitably cautionary.

What can we take away from this?

Well, I guess we can hope that other cities around the country might step up and prove that they’re as cultured as Jersey City.