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Orem groups pushing arts tax

OREM — A handful of cultural-arts groups in Orem are dreaming about how they might spend a flood of potential tax dollars.

The Hale Center Theater could move to a bigger building. The SCERA would put in new seats and a better stage. More soccer fields could be created for recreation leagues.

But there's one big obstacle in the way — the Nov. 8 election. For such costly improvements to be made, Orem voters would have to approve a proposed tax increase of 1/10 of 1 percent.

As the calendar rolls toward Election Day, cultural arts lovers are increasing their efforts to make sure the measure passes.

Three years ago, a similar tax proposal failed on a countywide ballot. This year, some residents have created a group to promote passage of the measure.

"The concern that we have is mainly apathy," said Richard Davis, head of the committee pushing the Cultural Arts and Recreation Enrichment (CARE) tax. "People may not understand, they may not see the benefits and just say, 'Well, I don't understand it, it must be a bad thing' and vote no. We want people to understand (the tax)."

But would only a few groups benefit from the tax?

It could be a sizable chunk of change — some $1.6 million a year, based on the city's sales tax revenue — that would be divided.

The phenomenon of "distributed costs, concentrated benefits," is what would happen with this proposed CARE tax. That is, according to Mike Jerman, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, a large group of people have to pay for something that helps only a small group.

Then, those small groups become the loudest, staunchest supporters of the proposed tax. After all, he asks, who wouldn't want a government donation?

"Whenever free taxpayer money is being offered, people line up to get it," Jerman said.

Hale Center Theater in Orem is already in line to get its piece if it becomes available. It is seeking a status change from a private company to a 501(c)(3), or nonprofit organization, one of the requirements get the tax money.

In its current location at 225 W. 400 North in Orem, Hale can pay all bills with ticket sale revenue. However, the company's growth has left it busting at the seams and in need of a new building, said Ann Swenson, vice president of marketing for Orem's Hale Center Theater.

If the tax passed in Orem, Swenson said the theater would definitely apply for a donation. However, without the tax support, the theater may have to start looking at moving, maybe to another city where it could find more financial stability. Swenson said the theater has been in contact with five cities in the valley who have expressed interest in hosting the theater.

"If it's our choice, we would want to stay in Orem — that's where we want to be," she said. "If (the tax) doesn't go through, other options will start looking a lot more positive."

However, Jerman said it is bad tax policy for a government to divert tax funds away from necessary operations like education or transportation.

"If there's a demand for (theater), people will go or private individuals will donate to subsidize it," Jerman said. "But it doesn't have to come from taxpayers. With all the pressing needs of state and local government, this is way down on the list."

Although the City Council approved placement of the tax question on the ballot in August, voters have the final say.

Salt Lake County has a similar tax that helps fund groups like the ballet, symphony and Hogle Zoo.

The Hale Centre Theatre in West Valley City is one grateful recipient of the increased funds, said Mark Dietlein, president and CEO of the theater.

"It has been an absolute huge benefit to the theater by being able to participate in that (Zoo, Arts and Parks tax)," Dietlein said. "It has provided additional funding that has enabled us to increase our production values."

Although the Orem and West Valley theaters are linked only by their love of the arts — the similar names are just a coincidence — they both recognize the impact of the tax on nonprofit theater groups.

"The phrase that comes to mind is, 'There ain't no free lunch,' " Dietlein said. He said while governments need to be judicious in their use of tax hikes, the small 1/10 of one percent is not enough to be noticeable for the individual but is enough to be beneficial as a whole.

Although hopes are high for the proposed tax revenue, the SCERA theater will continue functioning no matter the outcome.

"SCERA will proceed as we have for 72 years without a tax," said Adam Robertson, CEO of SCERA. "But it becomes more and more difficult to keep it alive, and yet there's such a need."