IF LAWS WERE schoolchildren, the city's One Percent for Art ordinance would be the first choice for teacher's pet.
The city has been setting aside 1 percent of its construction budgets, mainly to fund on-site visual art, for almost three decades. Perhaps the greatest testament to the program's popularity is the way it's been copied in the private sector—hardly an office project is built within city limits without the aid of an artist on the design staff, leading to miles of sculpture-decorated plazas and whimsical ornamentation aplenty.
But Mayor Paul Schell's hopes of upping the One Percent program's funding cut to 1.5 percent are on hold for now. Led by Council Utilities Committee Chair Margaret Pageler, the City Council voted 5-4 to tell Schell to leave his increase in arts funding out of the city's 2001-02 budget.
Members of the arts community, who have been lobbying hard for the increase, are furious. "This fight's not over," says Alex Steffen, president of the Allied Arts organization. "The arts are a big part of what makes Seattle what it is. And one council member is not going to stop us."
Although noticeably less defiant, the mayor's office clearly feels ambushed by Pageler's action. Yazmin Mehdi, a special assistant to Schell, says council members seemed receptive to the proposal and had agreed to discuss the issue early next year, well before the 2001 budget process gets under way.
Steffen questions the timing of Pageler's action. He says that new council members Jim Compton, Heidi Wills, and Judy Nicastro all endorsed Schell's increase in arts funding while on the campaign trail. Add current arts supporters Peter Steinbrueck, Nick Licata, and Richard Conlin, and you have a clear council majority.
Did Pageler take a preemptive strike to kill the increase before all the new members take office? She says her timing is merely practical: "You know that once the mayor puts something in the budget, it's hard to take it out."
Pageler, who relishes her role as utility watchdog, sees the mayor's art funding proposals as just another tax increase for City Light and water customers. She notes that the council just voted to increase utility fees to absorb major increases in government overhead. "None of [the increases] standing alone is a killer, but cumulatively, there's a significant cost to ratepayers," she argues. In addition to opposing Schell's proposal to up the art component of capital projects, Pageler also headed off an effort to extend the program to projects outside city limits, which are currently exempt from the program. Most of these projects—think fish ladders and water filtration plants—are utility related and would boost rates without significant benefit to ratepayers, she argues.
Steinbrueck replies that a financial analysis of the Schell proposal shows that the required utility rate increases would amount to less than a tenth of a percentage point. He can also count votes, and hinted that Pageler's majority could evaporate with the new year. "We can change policy whenever we have five votes to do so," says Steinbrueck. "And I'm hoping the new council will be more sensitive and supportive of the arts."