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The Monroe Theater and Fuzzy Math

Monroe

The Monroe Theater and Fuzzy Math

After two (2) years and significant questioning, the Town of Monroe has put forth its plans to re-open the now municipally-owned Monroe Theater, renamed as the “Town of Monroe Arts and Civic Center” (TMACC). But the information that is not available is almost as troubling as the information that is.

Monroe theaterMonths after stating that a plan and budget for operating the theater would be presented to the public, the town had already selected an operator for the venue and created a large number of part-time civil service eligible positions for the facility without having disclosed the operating projections for the facility or how it would recoup the town’s investment. It’s also notable that the facility was purchased with cash and repaid with a five-year bond to cover the $880,000 taxpayer expense, an expense that continues to the bond’s maturity in 2018. There is no specific budget line for the full cost of Monroe theater operation in the 2015 budget.

Given the information not known, it makes very clear there hasn’t been a sound fiscal plan to operate the venue and show movies, one of the many ideas for the facility after its purchase. Moreover, the theater will only open three (3) of its six (6) screens. Of the remaining three, one has been set aside for hosting town meetings and non-movie events (Town Board Meetings, lectures, et al). There has been no statement from the town on the remaining two screens/theaters.

Now, months delayed, and after the Downing Film Center of Newburgh has been contracted for a five-year agreement to procure entertainment, Town of Monroe Comptroller Peter Martin has released a set of three proposed operating budget scenarios, marked as “Optimistic”, “Conservative”, and “Pessimistic”. In those scenarios, there’s one significant oversight: No provision has been made for the costs of the bond repayment.

The Fuzzy Math?

Monroe Theater Operating BudgetYou’ll see in the plan according to Martin (at left, click the image for a larger view), the theater needs gross sales of $550,000 through the remainder of 2015 (the Town Board is racing toward a May 1 opening to make this possible), given that the remaining figures include the pro-rated adjustments for Downing’s contractual management and film rentals. It also requires 45 showings per week in each theater to make any of this possible. That would be a feat, making all of the options very lofty, but it lacks the overhead of the bond repayment ($172,000/year).

At the end of this, if you factor just that cost into the equation, the most optimistic scenario actually loses about $100,000 for the period, and the “pessimistic” scenario loses closer to $300,000 for the remainder of 2015.

Hot dog cookers and popcorn makers? Soda Fountains? Not included.

Water? That’s factored as a separate cost but is flat whether the theater has one patron or 10,000. Last we checked, water was a variable cost based on utilization, and all of those sodas are going to result in trips to the men’s and ladies’ rooms. Those costs add up variably.

Janitorial? Again, it’s a guess and it’s the same for one patron as 10,000, so apparently that’s one heck of a contract to clean up dropped-food and sticky floors if it’s truly consistent, but $700 for the remainder of the year is not realistic. Maintenance, other than for technology, is also non-existent, so expect to see broken chairs not be fixed and clogged toilets not be corrected.

Telephone & Internet is listed separately from “Internet”, so either we are paying the same cost twice, or Mr. Martin’s math is once again lacking accuracy.

So we’ve thus far discovered that this is not a solid plan, and at best it’s a series of numbers hastily composed to appease a public seeking some understanding of taxpayer burden. This would be bad enough if it ended there. It doesn’t.

Mr. Martin contacted several individuals after the April 6th Town Board meeting when serious questions arose, admitting the numbers were not accurate and that the overall number of tickets to be sold was overstated. He acknowledged to several inquiries that a true business plan for the facility wasn’t fully completed, which may explain the inaccuracies in calculations. The budgeting lacks the necessary credibility to sell to the taxpayers who are likely footing the bill for over $250,000 per year to subsidize poor decision-making that resulted in the theater’s original purchase.

Other impacts

Consider also the removal of the property from the tax rolls and the impact to the Town, the Village, and the Monroe-Woodbury School  District. Between the Village and the schools, about $60,000 was lost. The town could be estimated for another $30,000, amounts unlikely to be recouped in sales taxes alone. But the prospect of a theater re-opening, taxpayer-burden or not, has both the Town Board and the press giddy with glee and ready to fault those who objected to municipal ownership.

The Times Herald-Record of Middletown printed a “Cheers & Jeers”  article on April 13th, applauding the effort but ignoring facts from a previous article by Chris McKenna that missed significant details about the theater’s budgeting and operation (including the role of Downing in operation).

  • Cheers: To Monroe
    Cheers: To officials in the Town of Monroe for keeping their promise. When the town decided to buy the closed cineplex in the middle of the village in a foreclosure auction, officials had a variety of future uses in mind, including reviving its use as a movie theater. Now, with news that the operators of the highly regarded Downing Film Center in Newburgh have been brought into the operation, local residents have something to look forward to. If all works as planned, the town should see a nice return on this investment while providing the community with something that it needs. Critics of the plan who have had little to offer as an alternative should at least give this a chance, see a show, buy some popcorn. And those who have a more open mind should watch for the official opening date. The people who run the Downing center know what they are doing, and Monroe is lucky to have them.

Sure, the town kept its promise, but at what cost? That point is lost on the editorial boards of several local publications too eager to celebrate the re-opening of the Monroe theater at a significant taxpayer cost and loss of a tax-base. And their commentary ignores a major point on the alternatives that the town of Monroe has always had that would recoup their investment in the facility and allow them to save face without incurring a loss: Sale to a private owner/operator. Such a sale now, as the economy is in upswing, would yield a higher return than when the property was purchased without public input and without an examination of the impact. It would repay the bond, get the town out of a business about which they know nothing, and allow the facility to reopen all six (6) of the screens in the facility, not just three. And it would return a property to the tax rolls, resulting in a net gain for the town, the village, and the Monroe-Woodbury School District, all of whom could use the revenue.

And as for the “return on investment”? Chris McKenna’s earlier story on the theater is full of inaccuracies and based on the flawed calculations used by Martin. They might want to rethink that editorial  “cheer”.

Still more to the story

While this might be a good ending to the story, the travesty doesn’t end there.

The theater transaction has left a very bitter taste in the mouths and minds of a town who will be paying multiple times to see a show at the “TMACC”: Once in their tax bills, or at a loss of other services, and once at the ticket-booth. Some points to be considered.

  • Downing Film Center provides a discount to its members. For the TMACC, that discount would apply here as well, so Downing memberships get a free-ride courtesy of Monroe’s tax base. Rather than a $9 ticket price, members pay $6. Downing keeps the membership fees, and the town foots the cost of the deficit.
  • While no offense is intended to the people at Downing who book and show films, none of them are the “blockbusters” and “oscar-winners” promised by the town when they undertook re-opening the theater. Downing’s offerings are mostly independent films, art films, and otherwise very obscure titles. (See their link to current showings here)
  • Roughly 50% of the population of Monroe is comprised of Kiryas Joel residents, who for cultural reasons are not likely to see movies. The remainder of the town are people who feel dismayed with the situation and are more likely to stay away than pay more money to the town for what their government wants them to watch. Whatever remains isn’t enough to fill a broom closet.
  • “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” The key question for Monroe taxpayers is “what isn’t being done in order to fund the expenses for the Monroe theater?” The answer lies largely in the main responsibilities where the town has already diverted its budget: Water mains/storm drainage and road maintenance. A drive through the town shows where metal road plates cover sinkage or major damage in roads that haven’t been repaired. And no investment is being taken or planned in the water infrastructure unless something has already broken, so money set aside for ensuring the system is working has clearly been moved through budget line transfers to pay for “other expenses”. We need to stop raiding other budget lines to fund this travesty.

So let’s not celebrate the reopening of the Monroe theater…excuse us, the TMACC…just yet, and let’s conduct a more careful examination of the financials behind its operation by a group of individuals on our Town Board who are more intent on running a municipal amusement park than on the solid and fiscally responsible delivery of taxpayer-funded necessary services. And when you see Monroe Comptroller Peter Martin’s calculations in the future, be both wary and suspicious that he has the numbers correct. After all, he wasn’t fiscally responsible as a town councilman, and leopards don’t change their spots.

Managing Editor