By Maria Saporta
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told the arts lovers attending the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund luncheon Thursday: “I did a bad thing.”
The mayor was referring to his budget proposal that called for cutting the city’s arts and cultural budget by 50 percent — from $470,000 to $235,000.
“We had to make a lot of hard and tough decisions,” the mayor told the luncheon crowd about how the city’s general fund budget has contracted by $100 million since 2008 to its smallest level in more than two decades.
But on Wednesday, while jogging, the mayor — who has been a strong supporter of the arts long before he took office — began to second-guess himself.
“It hasn’t been sitting right with me at all,” Reed said. “I have been thinking about it, and then I realized I was the mayor. So I came to announced today that we are going to restore every single penny….”
The cheers were so loud that one couldn’t hear the mayor finish his sentence. Immediately, the crowd at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis excitedly stood up and gave the mayor a long standing ovation. The budget cuts had been strongly criticized by many in the room.
Reed went on to explain that when he was growing up, he was surrounded by the arts. And he has pledged to make sure that the children of Atlanta today have the same opportunities that he had growing up.
“Art changes you. It enhances you,” the mayor said. “For a moment , I forgot that. I changed my mind, and it was largely because of you.”
Lisa Cremin, director of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund, couldn’t have been more pleased by the mayor’s announcement.
“It’s very clear that the mayor understands that arts and culture are very important to the people of Atlanta,” she said. “We are thrilled he is holding the funding steady for arts and culture.”
After leaving the luncheon, Reed further explained his change of mind.
“I was making a decision that was causing a reduction in the quality of life that I had had growing up.”
That said, Reed said the city’s budget problems are real — largely because of the growing obligations of the city to its pensions. The mayor also has proposed deep cuts in the city’s parks budget, a move that also has upset many who though he was committed to increasing funding for green space in the city.
“Our failure to deal with the pensions by moving forward with a series of reforms, we can’t have stabilization or increased funding in those areas,” the mayor said. “The pension has to be dealt with or there isn’t another way to manage through this.”
The other hope the mayor has for dedicated funding for the arts is the proposed fractional sales tax that would permit local communities to invest in the arts and other quality of life and economic development initiatives. A bill for the fractional penny nearly passed the legislature two years ago, and it came close in 2011.
“We are on to the next fight. We will take up the bill with new energy and new vigor,” Reed said during his lunch talk. “I believe the Senate is with us. And now I need everybody in the room to go work a little harder on the House.”
Outside the ballroom, the mayor re-iterated his thoughts, saying that he realized “it would have been a bit hypocritical of me to tell the Georgia General Assembly we need a fractional tax for the arts,” while he was cutting the city’s arts budget.
“I’ve been involved in arts and culture in Atlanta for my entire life,” Reed said. “It’s not a ‘found’ issue to me. It’s part of my core. For a minute, I let finances get in the way. I was intellectually dishonest, and I was wrong to do it.”