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June 7, 2024

CT theaters slated to lose $3.5M in expected ARPA funds

TABIUS MCCOY / CT MIRROR Tiffani Gavin, the executive director of The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, seated in the center’s Dina Merrill Theater in Waterford on Thursday, June 6, 2024.

About a dozen theater organizations — including Waterbury’s Palace Theater and the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford — are calling on state leaders to restore millions of dollars in funding that lawmakers slashed during the 2024 legislative session, which wrapped last month.

Collectively, the theaters are slated to lose $1.3 million this fiscal year, which ends June 30, and an additional $2.2 million in the coming fiscal year. The legislature had allocated the funds — which draw from federal pandemic relief dollars made available under the American Rescue Plan Act — in the biennial budget they passed last year, and the theaters were notified of those awards in the summer of 2023.

But this year’s whirlwind legislative session saw hundreds of millions of ARPA funds reassigned, including a generic line item within the Department of Economic and Community Development’s allocations listed as “Theaters.” On May 14, less than a week after the General Assembly session adjourned, the organizations heard from DECD that their funding would be eliminated.

“A number of us are operating in a deficit as we continue to recover from the financial impact of the pandemic; the elimination of pledged ARPA money only deepens our losses, making us more financially unstable,” theater leaders wrote in a letter sent to Gov. Ned Lamont on Thursday, asking that the funds be reinstated.

“Many of us met several or all allowable qualifiers for this funding — Decrease in Revenue, Increased Costs, Financial Insecurity, Challenges Covering Payroll, and Inability to Weather Financial Hardship,” the letter reads. The theaters urged the governor and lawmakers to restore their funding as soon as possible “to ensure the survival of these organizations.”

The great reassignment

Theaters weren’t the only previously designated recipients of ARPA dollars who could see that funding go away. Some senior centers, job training programs in correctional facilities and other programs also saw their allocations reassigned after an unusual budget negotiation process during this year’s legislative session.

Typically, the legislature adopts a new budget every two years, and lawmakers make adjustments to that budget during a shorter session in the off year. The state’s current fiscal year 2024-25 budget was adopted last June. This year, lawmakers took the uncommon step of not reopening it to make changes. 

Instead, the legislature and Lamont asked state agencies to report how much in ARPA funding they had left to spend. Then, citing a federal deadline calling for those funds to be obligated by Dec. 31, 2024, lawmakers reassigned some $370 million identified by the agencies. The reassigned dollars were directed primarily toward bolstering higher education, social services, mental health, child care and town aid in the coming fiscal year.

The bulk of that money, roughly $225 million, came from projects within the Transportation and Education departments, which will now be funded through bonding, or borrowed funds. But it also came from myriad smaller programs — such as pandemic recovery assistance to theaters — laid out across dozens of pages of line items in House Bill 5523, An Act Concerning Allocations of Federal American Rescue Plan Act Funds and Provisions Related to General Government, Human Services, Education and The Biennium Ending June 30, 2025.

The measure passed on the eve of the final day of session, and it didn’t receive a public hearing.

On the floor of the Senate that evening, Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat who serves as co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, urged passage of the bill but acknowledged that eliminating ARPA funding from recipients who were expecting it would be painful. 

“I don’t want to see the money removed from theaters. I think that’s terrible. I don’t want to see the money removed from senior centers. I think that’s terrible,” Osten said. Still, she added, “When we give dollars to people, we need to spend the money. We cannot just hold it in a bank, we can’t say we’re going to do it, we need to spend the money.”

In an interview with The Connecticut Mirror, Osten said that while she ultimately brought the bill before the Senate, she wasn’t involved in the line-by-line negotiations over which ARPA allocations to reassign. “Only the chiefs of staff from the House, the Senate and the governor’s office made those decisions,” she said.

A spokesman for House leaders said their chief of staff wasn’t available to comment.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said in an emailed statement that those decisions were based on information gathered by the Office of Policy and Management, which distributes funds contracted through the agencies. “OPM informed leaders as to which funding was and was not spent already,” the statement read.

Looney said he understood there to be a “discrepancy” with the theater funding, and he said he’d be working with OPM to resolve it. “If there is still additional funding available this fall, we would advocate for those line items to receive the funding they were anticipating,” he said in the statement.

Chris Collibee, a spokesman for OPM, said in an email that the budget office had warned the funding change “would impact pending applications.” He noted that the Department of Economic and Community Development was in the midst of processing theaters’ paperwork; DECD administrators had made fiscal year 2024 payments to some of organizations, but they were still working to complete the rest when they found out the ARPA funds had been reassigned.

“The administration informed legislative leaders that some theaters had applications that were being processed, and they chose to reallocate those resources for the higher education units and other legislative priorities,” Collibee wrote. “Governing requires making difficult choices about how to allocate scarce taxpayer resources across competing priorities.”

He added it was still possible the funding could shift back to theaters and other programs pending consultations later this year.

A spokesman for DECD said he didn’t have additional comment beyond Collibee’s statement, given on behalf of the Lamont administration, which includes his agency.

‘Being hit while you’re down’

Tiffani Gavin, executive director at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, said she heard from DECD the first week of May that the organization’s $80,000 in funds for the current year were ready for distribution. A week later, she was told those funds had been cut, along with next year’s $60,000 or so.

“It was devastating. I mean, absolutely devastating,” she said.

The O’Neill runs several summer-long residency programs for up-and-coming playwrights, puppeteers, cultural critics and other emerging artists. At this point in the organization’s fiscal year, which ends Aug. 31, all the money is going to cover the summer programs that are just getting underway, Gavin said. The O’Neill is celebrating its 60th year this year, and as part of honoring that milestone, the organization sought to restore the level of programming it ran before the pandemic shut things down and forced cutbacks.

“Now that we’re right at the point of getting to just operate, we’re short,” Gavin said.

On Thursday afternoon, Gavin was emerging from her regular budget and cash flow meeting. “There are just a lot of unknowns,” she said. “We have fundraisers coming up that we hope will do well and can help keep us going, but there are just no definites.”

Cynthia Rider, managing director of Hartford Stage, received a similar notice from DECD’s Office of the Arts on May 14 about the theater’s funds going away. “As you may be aware, Hartford Stage is one of the theaters whose FY24 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding was removed in the most recent FY25 state budget,” the email read. Like the O’Neill, Hartford Stage stands to lose just over $80,000 in funding in the current fiscal year and another $60,547 allotted for next year. 

“It feels sort of like being hit while you’re down,” Rider said. Live performance venues were hit particularly hard by the pandemic, and most — including Hartford Stage — haven’t seen their revenues recover to pre-pandemic levels. Lawmakers had assured the theaters that they understood how important these venues are in generating economic activity and vitality in their communities, Rider said.

“Is this really how Connecticut state government works — that you get an award from the legislature, but until you can’t count on it? Like, we shouldn’t all put it in our budgets until we actually have a check?” Rider said ARPA funds had a wide range of documentation requirements, but she said Hartford Stage had complied with all of DECD’s paperwork requests throughout the year.

“It’s a big punch in the gut, at the end of the fiscal year, to not have that funding,” Rider said. “Each organization is going to have to figure out, like, ‘Can we raise that money some other way?’ And we're going to have to turn to individuals who've already been very generous this year and next — or you're going to have to cut a position, or you're going to have to cut a program. All of those decisions come back up on the table.”

Waterbury's Palace Theater was one of the fortunate organizations that received its 2024 funding — some $432,000 — before the legislature's new budget passed. But the dollars it was expecting next year, which amount to roughly 15% of the theater's budget, were eliminated.

"We knew that this funding wasn't going to be there forever," Frank Tavera, the Palace's chief executive, said. "If you're lucky enough to receive state support, that's wonderful. But it shouldn't be what keeps us afloat, because that's an unrealistic business model, quite honestly."

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