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Hundreds protest proposed cuts to art programs

SAN DIEGO – Faced with the prospect of both local and national funding cuts, leaders of San Diego arts and culture organizations Monday urged the City Council to maintain financial support in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

At issue is a $4.7 million reduction to the city's Commission on Arts and Culture, to $10.4 million, in Mayor Kevin Faulconer's proposed budget. The commission funds numerous institutions around San Diego, including luminaries like Balboa Park museums and the La Jolla Playhouse.

It's one of the main spending cuts in a budget squeezed by a big jump in the city's contribution to the employee pension plan.

At the same time, arts leaders are worried about President Donald Trump's proposal to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, which would create a financial double-whammy.

Area arts leaders, who said youth education and outreach programs would be most at risk with the funding cuts, found a friendly audience among the council members.

At one of a series of council hearings on the mayor's budget proposal, Councilman Chris Ward said arts funding will remain a priority among his colleagues. Solutions to other problems have been found at the hearings, he said.

"We have our work cut out for us," Ward said. "Ideally, we would be able to locate and find another five-plus million dollars to not just restore, but also add to, the (arts) funding."

Money directed to the commission comes from a percentage of hotel room tax revenue. Arts funding brings a high return on investment for San Diego, especially in tourism, according to supporters.

"Arts and culture (are) the heart and soul of who we are, our humanity," Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, a longtime support of arts spending. "We are not a great city without arts and culture. We just aren't."

Councilman Scott Sherman, however, cautioned that budget difficulties are only going to get worse over the next year, with the pension payment due for another big rise.

The upcoming fiscal year is being balanced mostly with the use of reserves and "bookkeeping gimmicks," Sherman said.

"We're going to have to come up with real cuts next year," he said. "I think this year, we're going to do what we can to make things a little bit easier. But just be forewarned that the cuts that are coming in the next budget are going to be much more difficult and probably much more painful."

The public is invited to comment on the spending plan at a special 6 p.m. City Council session on May 15.

Council members are expected to comb through the proposed budget in May and adopt it in June.