Presented with a petition signed by over 600 people that called for increased funding for the arts, the Healdsburg City Council gave the topic as much attention as they could in the May 31 special budget study session, but were unwilling to allocate more than the $50,000 earmarked.
The council heard public comment from half a dozen residents, including several members of the city’s own Creative Leadership Team, about the importance of arts funding for the public image of Healdsburg and in support of the petition circulated by Christina Stafford on Change.org. Titled “Support Healdsburg Arts Funding Now,” the petition writes, “This current placeholder amount for this vital programming is simply insufficient to launch the Arts and Culture Master Plan.” It lays the blame squarely in the seat of city staff: “Right now, The City Manager has slashed the suggested funding by 90%.”
Stafford, the originator of the petition, is the owner of Stafford Gallery at the northwest corner of the Plaza, at Plaza and East Streets. She moved from San Francisco to Healdsburg in 2017 to open the gallery, and found an arts-receptive community that was just beginning the research and development of an Arts and Culture Master Plan. The city chose a national consultancy company, the Cultural Planning Group, and assembled an advisory committee of 30-some locals with an interest in the arts, the Creative Leadership Team.
The process to develop the master plan took longer than expected, as first the Kincade fire of 2019 and then the Covid pandemic slowed their efforts. But they came up with a 23-page document (plus 128-page appendix), approved by the City Council in August 2021, that called for expanding a public arts program, enriching cultural experiences for the community and visitors, “foster[ing] and growing” a creative economy, and developing arts and cultural spaces.
It came with a staffing recommendation: “For the short term, it is recommended to appoint one full-time staff person as the program manager. When feasible, staff may be expanded to include a public art professional and assistant staff. It is recommended the program manager have a background in arts and/or design.” A subsequent city Department of Community Services report to the council made specific recommendations on how to implement the Master Plan. According to Stafford, the “first thing that the plan called for was the creation of a staff position. That’s the biggest line item in the originally proposed budget, something like $115,000…”
City Manager Jeff Kay has a different perspective, saying the Master Plan “came to me as part of a long list of requests and options, not a ‘recommendation.’ That distinction may seem like splitting hairs, but it is significant because we had a list of needs, wants and requests that vastly exceeded our available resources….Our challenge in every budget is to determine what we have the capacity to take on, both in terms of dollars and staff capacity.”
So when the budget came before the city council on May 31, it included only $50,000 per year for implementing the plan, as well as the existing $250,000 budgeted for arts and culture events. The council spent 20 minutes discussing the issue in their lengthy budget planning meeting. But they ultimately decided by consensus to leave the budget as it was presented, and take up the matter at the next available city council meeting—sometime in August, following final budget meetings and the July recess.
“I have absolutely no concern about arts advocates advocating for arts funding, but there does seem to be some misinformation out there about the budget process,” City Manager Jeff Kay told the Tribune in an email on May 27, before the meeting. He recognized the importance of an additional city staff position, for the same reasons that Stafford and the rest of the arts community gave: “Without that position or some alternative approach, it would be challenging for the City to put increased funding to work, given our existing projects and priorities at the moment.
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “we had several requests for increased staffing in Community Services—far more than we could afford in this budget—and the arts position was not one of their top priorities.”
Following their discussion, the council directed to keep the budget as proposed, but to have a more in-depth discussion of the implementation steps for the Arts and Culture Master Plan when possible. “Deferring items or, as in this case, providing funding that is significant but not the fully requested amount, is unfortunately a common part of the budget process,” said Kay.
“It may take a little longer than people hoped, but I’m still confident that we can make good progress in allocating funds and starting the implementation of the plan,” the city manager said.
“I came (to Healdsburg) because if you care about something here, your voice will be heard,” said Stafford a week later. “We got 600 signatures in a week—it was like a wildfire, it was quite an amazing response…. I think it speaks to the level at which Healdsburg is already appreciated for its art.” Of the original 34 members of the Creative Leadership Team, about 20 continue to meet and keep working toward an artistic “brand” for Healdsburg, she said.
Was there any danger that the matter would be quietly dropped between now and August? “Oh, I don’t think they’ll forget about it,” said Stafford firmly. “We’re here, and we’re a pretty vocal and enthusiastic group.”