By Ed Runyan
It’s been almost five years since the Power of the Arts organization was formed to encourage and fund arts and culture in the Mahoning Valley.
On Friday, arts supporters attending a town-hall style meeting learned it will take continued lobbying in Columbus to make the change in Ohio law needed to give local voters the opportunity to levy cigarette taxes that would generate the funding.
Atty. Mark Mangie, co-chairman of the Power of the Arts, said the POA’s lobbyist in Columbus continues to talk to lawmakers to encourage them to allow counties as small as Mahoning and Trumbull to ask voters for the tax. He and other arts supporters spoke at Bliss Hall at Youngstown State University.
Cuyahoga County officials succeeded in getting state law changed to allow it to use cigarette taxes for an arts district. In 2007, voters approved a tax of 30 cents per pack of cigarettes to fund it. But the law was written only for counties of 1.2 million people or more.
Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, which contains Pittsburgh, has something similar — a sales tax that funds its arts and culture district, Mangie said.
Despite that funding for Cleveland and Pittsburgh, the Mahoning Valley has an “embarrassment of riches” of arts, he said.
It is “probably one of the most-concentrated areas of arts between Chicago and New York. Other parts of the state don’t have that,” he said.
The problem is the local arts organizations, such as the Youngstown Symphony, have to “beg and beg” for funding to continue their programs, he said.
The $6.9 million the cigarette tax would raise annually in Mahoning County and $6.3 million it would raise in Trumbull County is needed to provide sustainable funding, he said.
“We have a lot worth fighting for in Mahoning and Trumbull counties because of our rich arts and culture community,” he said.
But legislators have not been receptive to allowing smaller counties to tap the cigarette tax, in part because of the poor “political climate” in Ohio and the nation that prevents cooperation and compromise, he added.
If legislators agree to change the law, the next step would be to persuade county officials to put a cigarette tax on the ballot and for local voters to approve it, Mangie noted.
Mangie said there is another option — a property tax — but the public “would be screaming” in opposition to that, he said.
The group also is teaming up with Summit County, which is making progress in its own lobbying effort, he said.
Funding is considered the most-important issue for Power of the Arts survey respondents.