ROCKINGHAM — The City Council voted to adopt its proposed budget for fiscal year 2018-19 Tuesday night in a 4 to 1 vote following a steady procession of opposition speakers.
The city’s budget included a cut to funding for the libraries and culture budget by $51,254, or 39 percent from the previous year, which would mean the elimination of the full-time director position of the Richmond Community Theatre — which carries a $63,000 yearly salary — and replace it with a part-time director.
The dissenting vote came from Council member Denise Sullivan who said she supported everything in the budget except for the cuts to the theater. Sullivan recalled the words of late Richmond County educator Dr. John Langley, famous for his arts program, who said, “When we fail to show the kids the beauty of the arts, we are raising a society of barbaric people.”
“I feel like the theater adds to the quality of life in Rockingham … they all say (the theater closing) is not going to happen but I just fear it’s going to be another empty building,” Sullivan said after the meeting. “I just think that we’re financially able to (fund the full-time position).”
City Manager Monty Crump cited significant lags in theater attendance over the last three years, with spikes coming during the holiday season and for popular performances such as “Beauty and the Beast” — as well as friction between theater officials and the city when it came use in between productions — as justification for the cuts.
Crump has also expressed frustration with the lack of transparency regarding the theater’s expenses.
Nine people spoke against the reduction in funding during the public hearing on the budget, arguing that a full-time director is essential to maintaining the theater which relies on volunteers to fill every other role in its productions.
Theater board member Lynn Blake called the theater a “jewel” and said that no part-time person could fill the role of the current director, Shelly Walker.
“There are many people who can do one or two of the things a full-time director can do, but none — that I’m aware — of these part-time people will have the skill set required to do a production of any magnitude,” Blake said. “A part-time person will not have the time nor the inclination to expend the time to do an adequate job.
“As a board member, I fear that passing this very important role to a part-time individual or a volunteer director will be the demise of this 41-year-old theater.”
Anitra Ingram, of Rockingham, become emotional speaking about the “great pleasure” that being involved with the theater has given her and what it meant to her mother to see her, as a black woman, performing in a theater that was once segregated.
“I need this theater. I need this theater,” Ingram said emphatically.
At least 15 people showed up to the council chambers to support the theater, with many wearing matching neon yellow shirts. Councilmember Bennett Dean asked those in attendance to raise their hands if they lived in the city and were therefore paying city taxes — five raised their hands, which was the crux of Dean’s support for the budget.
“We’re beholden to the taxpayers,” Dean said.
Crump said that additional funds could be added to the budget in the future to provide more part-time positions to take on other roles in the theater if needed. He is meeting with the theater’s governing board at their July meeting to discuss the next steps for the theater. Walker will stay in her position until the current budget ends at the end of June.
“I’m thanking God tonight for Denise Sullivan,” Walker said after the vote. “It’s hard to stand up for what’s right and I’m proud that she did that.”