Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, July 12, 2012 | 2 a.m.
A chorus of opposition is lining up against massive fee hikes by the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District that are threatening to bring down the curtain on local community theaters' use of library theaters.
At the same time, increased scrutiny of the district’s budget has led to a question of potential conflict of interest by the Library District’s chairwoman. In addition, some county commissioners now wonder if the makeup of the non-elected library board makes it accountable to the public.
The basic issue, however, is money. The district obtains funding largely from property taxes, which have fallen greatly over the past four years. In that time, the district has cut its budget by some $23 million, said Pat Marvel, district spokeswoman.
The district also examined its fees and found it hadn’t increased those for theater use since 1994. So more than a year ago, in April 2011, the library’s board increased those fees. Theater rent went from $10 to $170 per hour, and the cost to hire technicians, who work lights and sound systems, went from $12 to $40 an hour.
Existing contracts were honored under the old rate until the contracts ended. Only within the past two months have two theater groups, Signature Productions and Broadway Bound, begun to see just how the new fees are pricing them out, said Marci Riedy, whose children are involved in Broadway Bound.
To demonstrate the impact of those increases, Riedy said Broadway Bound’s last production, “Wizard of Oz,” cost $3,700 to produce. It would cost $27,000 under the new fee structure, she said, and ticket prices would need to go from $20 to more than $50 to cover the cost. Signature Productions spent $11,000 to produce “The Sound of Music.” That would have cost $74,000 under the new rates, she added.
In addition, she said, the Library District requires a 50 percent deposit of estimated cost paid upfront. “Neither (Broadway Bound nor Signature) can afford that,” she said. Signature, she said, recently made an agreement to perform at a theater in Sun City Summerlin.
For the Library Board, however, the fact remains that fees needed to be increased, Marvel said.
She noted that in fiscal year 2009-10, the Library District subsidized the use of its facilities by outside groups to the tune of $750,000. Given the austere look board members have given the budget during the recession, she added, that subsidy could not be ignored.
The district has eliminated 96 positions — 12 as voluntary separations; 15 part-timers and 13 full-timers were laid off; and 56 frozen positions were eliminated — and operating hours were reduced from 72 hours to 60 hours per week. In addition, Marvel said, wages and salaries have been frozen, the materials budget was reduced by $3.8 million and building repairs have been deferred.
“We know the rate increase was very dramatic, and in hindsight our current board might have preferred that past boards had increased rates gradually over time,” she added. “This board had to make that tough decision.”
Appealing to the Clark County Commission a week ago, Riedy got choked up talking about the impact on Broadway Bound, a 3-year-old community theater. She volunteers for the theater, in which her 9-year-old daughter, Grace, acts. Though they will get space for a week at the start of the school year from the College of Southern Nevada, costing $15,000, there are no plans to continue after that.
Asked why Broadway Bound didn’t appeal for help a year ago, Riedy replied, “We honestly felt we weren’t big enough to make a difference.”
“We didn’t think we had friends who can help with this, so we decided to just find another place,” she said.
After her appeal last week, county commissioners say they are going to take a closer look at the Library District numbers.
“We’ve got to do something about these rates,” Commissioner Steve Sisolak said. “It just has to be addressed.”
Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said she also wondered about the board’s makeup. Though neither Clark County nor Las Vegas gives money to the Library District, state law allows commissioners to determine who sits on its board. None of the 10 board members are elected officials.
“It begs the question: Should you have unelected board members who vote for tax increases or fees or spending of tax dollars, who have that kind of authority without accountability to the public?” Giunchigliani said. A similar argument has been made about the Southern Nevada Public Health District, whose board includes elected and non-elected members.
The library board’s chairwoman, Kelly Benavidez, is the liaison for Commissioner Lawrence Weekly, which raised another issue. Sisolak said Benavidez's ties to Weekly make it “feel like a conflict of interest.”
“He can appoint people to the board,” Sisolak said of Weekly. “I’m not sure that’s fair. Or at least maybe he should be abstaining from all Library District decisions.”
Weekly could not be reached for comment.
The matter isn’t scheduled to come before the County Commission at its meeting next Tuesday. Even then, Giunchigliani admitted, “we can’t direct (the library board) to change their fees.”
But the matter isn’t going away. Dr. Keith Boman, known for his interest in local cultural and artistic endeavors, is also vice chairman of the board of the Smith Center for the Performing Arts.
Boman is talking to local elected officials. He isn’t speaking on behalf of the Smith Center, he said, but from his personal point of view he would consider the loss of community theater from local libraries a devastating hit on cultural growth in Las Vegas.
“It’s taking one part of the circle out of what makes us an active, growing community,” he said. "It’s a crying shame after all these years to end up in this kind of a bureaucratic nightmare.”