More drama as Rochester Civic Theatre returns taxpayer funds to city

Heightened city council scrutiny over local taxpayer funding for the Rochester Civic Theatre has already begun to pay dividends. After recently expressing alarm over the nonprofit’s finances, the city received a six-figure check from the theater out of the blue.

The drama over $200,000 in public funds set aside annually for the theater’s maintenance and utilities costs continues to play out  in the pages of the Rochester Post Bulletin.

The Rochester Civic Theatre has returned three-quarters of the funding it received from the city, which could mark a new path for city-supported performing arts in Rochester.

Theater Board President Jeff Haynes said a check was delivered Friday afternoon, two days after the board received a letter demanding the return of $150,000.

“We were trying to protect the money,” Rochester City Attorney Jason Loos said of the decision to send a letter to the Civic board.

It’s not necessarily a sudden reversal of fortune, however, that allowed the Civic Theater to unexpectedly repay the city. An anonymous benefactor has reportedly donated $200,000 to the thespian group, allowing much of a $250,000 debt to be cleared up.

Yet city officials continue to be concerned over the theater’s operations, including:

Past defaults on various debts, including $4,388 in payment to Rochester Public Utilities that was at least 90 days overdue at the end of 2019.

The theater has been placed on a “do not sell” list for liquor after allegedly failing to pay state liquor taxes.

Loans from board members are seen as potential conflicts of interest.

A $300,000 unsecured loan was obtained by the theater.

Theater representatives maintain restructuring and projected revenue from future shows will turn things around. But City Administrator Steve Rymer hinted the funding model for the theater and other publicly funded arts groups may be revised at the next city council meeting.

“One of the recommendations that is likely to come from the oversight committee is that all allocations from the city to outside agencies will be done on a quarterly or monthly basis and not as a lump sum at the start of the year,” Council member Michael Wojcik said.

Council member Shaun Palmer, who advocated for the return of the entire $200,000 provided to the Civic Theatre, agreed.

“I think we need to do some more looking at how things have been done,” he said.