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What Your Butts Buy

How we spend one of the nation's biggest pots of public arts money

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Measurable Benefits

Because there are no restrictions on how the cigarette money is used, measuring its impact can be a challenge. But CAC has started compiling data. "We now have two full years of data collected from our grantee partners, and they demonstrate that this public investment in our arts and culture sector is making an important difference," says Gahl-Mills.

The first two years in which grants were available — 2008 and 2009 — marked the height of the recession. Nonetheless, activities offered countywide by arts organizations receiving general operating money during that time swelled from just over 19,000 in 2007 to almost 24,000 in 2009, an increase of 25 percent.

The number of classes and workshops offered shot up by more than 75 percent, with 1,600 programs added between 2007 and 2009.

The number of county residents attending free events climbed by about 10 percent.

Ticket prices didn't jump as much as those in other cities, and the tuition cost for children's workshops and classes even dropped slightly.

Notably, the number of full- and part-time employees at CAC-funded organizations held steady through the recession at about 5,000 primarily skilled jobs. The amount paid out in salaries during that period rose from $100 million to $108.7 million. Despite the economic turmoil, these workers got raises.

Playhouse Square's Porter says its CAC grant directly benefits its 135 full-time and more than 200 part-time workers. "We are a major employer here, and operating dollars keep people employed," she says. "When we offer a free program, we still need to pay staff to be there."

No Planning for Tomorrow

Part of CAC's challenge is in spreading the unprecedented number of dollars into every deserving corner of Cuyahoga County.

"How do we talk to the Cleveland Orchestra, but also to the program in the basement of a church in Central?" asks CAC trustee Vickie Eaton Johnson.

It's a tall order indeed, although common sense says that groups should be chasing CAC for a piece of the plentiful pie. Because groups in many communities seem unaware of the grants available, CAC is starting to hit on low-cost ways to get the word out.

At the beginning of the year, the group sent letters to the mayors of all 59 cities in the county, asking to meet with them and their city councils in hopes of finding eligible organizations in their neighborhoods. That was four months ago. Only nine cities have taken them up on it so far.

Last month, CAC simplified the application process for groups seeking $5,000 or less to fund single events or projects.

"As a public funder, it's very important that there be accessibility across the board," explains CAC's Weinberg. "Some of these organizations tend to be very small and are volunteer-run. For someone wanting an $800 grant, asking them to do the same amount of paperwork as someone wanting $50,000 is an unnecessary burden."

In a further effort to spread the money around, CAC invited 14 philanthropists and business and community leaders to take part in a behind-the-scenes brainstorming session not open to the public. The February meeting surprised local arts advocates who say it may have been a single misstep in CAC's otherwise impeccable transparency.

"No decisions were made," Johnson says. However, trustees will vote later this year on whether to start funding arts education efforts in schools, branching into economic development, and investing directly in neighborhoods — all ideas that sprang from the think tank. The goal is to ensure that the money makes a lasting impression on arts at the street level, and that could prove to be a challenge down the road.

As rosy as things are now, the pile of money raised by Cuyahoga's cigarette tax dwindles with the region's declining number of smokers. The tax brought in almost $20 million in 2008, not quite $16 million in 2010, and will raise only $10 to $12 million by 2017, according to CAC projections. After that, the tax expires and the funds disappear entirely unless voters approve a renewal levy.

Some question why CAC is obliged to blow through its mountains of cash each year, as opposed to creating an endowment to hold funds that could be distributed during leaner tax times.

"There was interest in doing that, but one of the pushbacks was that voters overall are somewhat skeptical of developing those types of reserves, according to research we did at the time," says Schorgl of CPAC, which led the cigarette tax ballot initiative.

Schorgl and CAC won't worry about the details of a renewal levy until about 2015, when they plan to start ensuring that the county executive agrees to return it to the ballot.

Meanwhile, for those still wanting to donate to CAC, Porter of Playhouse Square offers a suggestion: "If you don't smoke, buy a pack of cigaretes once in a while," she says, "and just throw them away."

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