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City arts board funding fuels debate over city and county cooperation, spending

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Discussion over funding and staffing of the city of La Crosse Arts Board has sparked debate about the cooperation between the city and the county, and the way the city is spending its money during an economic crisis.

At the Finance & Personnel Committee meeting Thursday evening, committee members, council members and La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat weighed the pros and cons of allocating $30,000 to the arts board for unspecified projects.

For many council members, the allocation seemed unnecessary. They cited a number of reasons, one of them being that the city should make use of its support from the county first, in moneys and representation.

Andrea Richmond mug


“We need to work with our community. There is funding for the county that’s set aside for arts,” said council member Andrea Richmond, who also serves as a La Crosse County supervisor.

Mayor Kabat said that the county’s funding for the arts was “news to me,” when presented with that idea.

Richmond later clarified that when a county supervisor sat on the city arts board, that supervisor would take ideas back to the county and ask for funding for certain projects. The Judiciary & Administration Committee voted on Tuesday to refer its decision to remove the county supervisor from the board for a month.

“And now all of a sudden we are going to eliminate a county supervisor on the arts board, we’re just going to have one council member. We’ll never get any money from the county if we continue doing these things,” Richmond said.

Some said it spoke to a larger issue about cooperation with the county, pointing out that the mayor had yet to appoint a county supervisor to the La Crosse Center Board, like the city agreed upon in January, contingent that the county contribute to the convention center’s expansion project.

Mayor Tim Kabat

La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat.

“I don’t quite understand why the county board members always want to hold the city hostage, that they’re not going to provide any support unless they get to be on our committees. I don’t quite follow that,” Kabat said.

County representatives said that they are ready to work with the city, though, especially on the arts.

“The Arts Board discussion and its implications for city-county cooperation are part of a larger pattern that has emerged over the course of the mayor’s administration,” said La Crosse County Board chair Monica Kruse.

“He tends to go it alone, and appears to see minefields in greater regional collaboration,” Kruse said, adding that she had nominated a new county supervisor to serve on the Arts Board, but Kabat declined.

“The county stands ready to work with the mayor and contribute to regional efforts to improve the cultural life in La Crosse, and enhance its attraction as a tourist destination,” Kruse said.

But as the city continues to face financial challenges because of coronavirus, a debate also ensued over how the city’s money is being spent.

The $30,000 would come directly from an existing project fund approved last year, for new wayfinding signs on the North Side — part of a project to improve the aesthetics of the neighborhood. Kabat said the funds were free because new signage had not been approved yet.

Jessica Olson mug


But as the city has had to make cuts and plans to make future financial adjustments because of the pandemic, some argued that any carryover should go toward efforts to compensate for those losses, the city’s financial director confirming that the COVID contingency fund was currently sitting at $0.

“If anything, if there is unused money sitting in any account that can be moved, I think the first place it needs to be moved,” is the contingency fund, council member Jessica Olson said. “I think we need to be a little more careful with any money we have at this time.”

Others made an argument that although the city is in an economic crisis, work to improve the city shouldn’t altogether halt.

“They have quite an ambitious list of accomplishments waiting to happen,” council member Phil Ostrem said of the arts board. “And we can’t be putting this off forever. So we need to make a decision, and the decision begins tonight.”

The arts board and staff had discussed an “immediate need” for a maintenance plan for its existing public art just before COVID-19, parks director Jay Odegaard said, but the plan was halted because of the $6,000 the board lost in budget cuts.

Phil Ostrem mug


“It’s very much a blank check,” said Olson, who was worried that the committee and city council didn’t have enough details about how the $30,000 would be spent.

In the resolution, the funding would be used for inventory and assessment of existing public art, repairs, launching a public mural program, and communications and festival planning.

Jay Odegaard

Jay Odegaard, Director of La Crosse Parks, Forestry and Recreation

“It’s not necessarily focusing on new art, but more so getting a real inventory and maintenance plan on our existing art,” Odegaard said, noting that there are large repairs needed on much of the artwork in the next five to 10 years alone.

The committee voted 4-2 to approve the funding, though it will need final approval from the Common Council next week.


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