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Panhandlers with permission 

It's a good thing Loch Haven Park isn't inside Orlando's proposed no-panhandling zone, because over the last few months, three cultural institutions in that part of town have had their hands outstretched. And they've asked for -- and gotten -- a bit more than spare change.

The Orlando Science Center recently received its second taxpayer bailout within a year. The last budget year's deficit was $1.6 million, and former director Sondra Quinn got the city ($400,000), Orange County ($300,000) and three foundations to pony up the difference. Brenda Robinson, the city's director of art and culture, called the center a "treasure" that needed to be saved (although Quinn herself was not saved; she was allowed to "resign" from her $145,000-a-year position).

This year, the center's new director, Kim Maher Cavendish, ended her first half-season a mere $1.2 million in the red and got the City Council to bail her out with an immediate $300,000 and a promise of an additional $500,000 starting this fall. The county is expected to follow suit with several cash infusions, totaling just below $1 million. City Council member Don Ammerman called the center a "great jewel" that needed to be saved, although attendance continues to plummet and almost nothing has been changed, fixed or improved since the center opened in 1997.

Previously, the ailing Civic Theatres got the city and county to come up with $75,000 apiece to help pay old debts so the facility could merge with the University of Central Florida's theater program. The Civic's incoming board chairman, Bud Brewer, explained that a bailout was the only way the Civic could be saved, and that a new entity would arise to continue providing quality theater. The money was granted and UCF took over, happy to be pocketing 150 Gs. The old board was quickly dissolved and the Civic, essentially, is no more.

Early this summer, the Orange County Historical Society got its annual grant from the county commission to help run its new, $35 million Regional History Center, opening next month in the old county courthouse downtown. The Society has already spent $21.7 million from the county and $6.3 million from the city to rehab the courthouse and its surrounding real estate. About 50 percent of its yearly operating costs ($1.2 million out of a $2.2 million total) will come from taxpayers. Center director Sara Van Arsdel made it clear that if the facility doesn't draw as well as hoped, she'll ask the county for more money. No doubt, she'll explain that it's the only way the center can be saved.

Now, I have nothing against these cultural institutions. I've supported them all with admissions and memberships. And I'm not against taxpayer dollars going to help them, either. Indeed, I agree that government has an obligation to help cultural organizations survive. I would like to see more money -- from all levels of government -- going to more artists and more schools and more orchestras, for that matter.

But I am bothered by the constant rewarding of mismanagement and bad planning, as well as the notion that whenever a large cultural entity bollixes up the works, it comes, hat in hand, to elected officials claiming that just a little more of my hard-earned grease will keep the wheels spinning, and that this time it really promises to get its act together. And if one feels the least bit angry at being manipulated by (sometimes overpaid) executive directors and (sometimes mendacious) board members who play upon one's guilt feelings, it somehow means that one is hostile to culture.

But elected officials should understand that these continual bailouts have a greater price tag than mere coin of the realm. It is a major reason why so many otherwise culturally supportive citizens are so opposed to a downtown performing-arts center. They realize that the game is to get the place built at any cost, because after the mortar sets, and the millions of taxpayer dollars are already spent, the organization will become too big an investment for our local governments to allow it to fail. And no matter how poorly run, or even necessary, such a center may be, at some point its director will be explaining to them how important it is to our community and how it "needs to be saved" by just one more infusion of ready cash.

So, the next time you see a real panhandler (whether in the city's designated zone or not), give him a small bailout -- for two reasons. First, for a change, you'll actually know where your money's going; and second, the guy just may be a "treasure" worthy of being saved.

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