Local Editorial: Signature Theatre deemed too fabulous to fail

Opinion,Theater,Local Editorial

On April 20, members of the Arlington County Board voted to raise homeowners' property taxes 3.5 cents, bringing the total tax bite to $1.006 per every $100 of assessed valuation. This amount was even higher than the 3.2 cents requested by County Manager Barbara Donnellan.

Washington Examiner readers will recall that just a month earlier, Donnellan had been forced to halt a plan to spend $1 million on a single "super bus stop" after a public outcry over the unnecessary extravagance went viral. So the county board raised property taxes even beyond what the county manager — who had been planning to build 23 of the million-dollar bus stops — believed was necessary.

If Arlington taxpayers didn't feel blindsided then, the board's unanimous vote last week to spend their tax dollars to pay off Signature Theatre's delinquent tax bill should have done the trick.

After inappropriately meeting in a closed-door executive session to discuss the $250,000 grant without a report from Donnellan, the Signature bailout was approved in 29 seconds flat. There was literally not even a minute of public discussion over the propriety of paying the theater's $85,000 delinquent tax bill and its future tax obligations with "savings from last year's budget."

Under a lease agreement with the county, the theater pays $90,000 in rent, which comes out to about 2.5 percent of its annual ticket sales. Managing director Maggie Boland insisted that "Signature is not in trouble," explaining that the theater has been "controlling expenses" by not paying its taxes. However, homeowners, business owners and other nonprofits in Arlington are strongly advised not to use that excuse next time their county tax bill comes due.

Signature Theatre, which produces expensive, Broadway-type shows for which it won a regional Tony Award in 2009, moved into a new county-owned building in 2007 but still owes $7.8 million on a construction loan. The terms of its 35-year lease require the theater — not taxpayers — to cover the full costs of operating the facility, including paying all taxes due.

Other tax scofflaws have their physical property and/or income seized to pay their delinquent taxes, as County Treasurer Frank O'Leary pointed out. Other financially struggling artistic venues have to scale back productions, sublease space or launch pledge drives when money gets tight. But Signature Theatre has friends in high places who apparently believe it's too fabulous to fail, county taxpayers be damned.

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