What the Monroe Theater should be showing…
The Memorial Day weekend marks the long delayed opening of the long beleaguered Monroe Theater. After numerous delays, including overcoming the injunctions aimed at addressing the Town Board’s original purchase and removal from the tax rolls, the theater will open to show three films.
That’s correct. Three films. On three screens. After all the wrangling, promises, erratic and amateurish decisions by a government with no experience operating a theater, the residents of Monroe will be getting half of the theater paid with their tax dollars?
Why? An explanation is yet to be offered, although that isn’t surprising.
The purpose for the theater was in limbo when it was purchased from under a planned auction. So the town purchased the building without a plan. At first, it was announced to have been everything from a public performance space, to a replacement for other municipal buildings, to a divided Town Court and theater, and in 2014, it was slated to be opened for use as a public toilet. In short, it’s been the brunt of jokes.
Two-and-a-half long years later? It’s opening. Partly.
But while the town government and its elected officials would like us to celebrate and claim success, a more careful evaluation of the facts is warranted. The Monroe Theater is a facility that now will contribute $0.00 in tax ratables for the Village in which it’s located, the Town, or for the Monroe-Woodbury School District. Two of them stand to lose over $60,000 in annual revenue from municipal ownership of the facility because towns don’t pay taxes to themselves.
Next, they’ve entered into a costly contract with the Downing Film Center, who runs a small theater in Newburgh. For selecting and procuring movies, they’ll receive $154,000 a year. That fee does not include a projectionist, a professional manager, or anything but the booking process.. It also leaves them free and clear of any risks, so win-or-lose, Downing is paid regardless of whether their selections are ones people will pay to see. That’s lucrative work if you can get it, and while we are not specifically against Downing as a ‘curator’ for films, their Newburgh selections have largely skewed toward arthouse and independent films, and less toward blockbusters.
But there is more behind the story.
It’s difficult for the average citizen to know how the Monroe Theater has been funded, or how it will continue to be funded without a tax increase. Consider the town’s record with running the Round Lake concession (otherwise known as the duck-boats). While the town is always eager to report the income received from the concession, they’re far less forthcoming with the expenses and overall net outcome (profit or loss) of the operation. During the last report on the concession, the town reported income from operations of $34,000. They also reported part of a loss of $37,000 associated to its operations, and this may or may not include salaries, benefits, insurance, and other incidentals. So with only part of the information available, the story emerging is that the paddle-boat concession results in a loss to the town.
But that isn’t the story that our elected officials are keen to advertise.
Even the Town Comptroller’s own figures, once corrected to reflect variable costs more accurately, reflect that the theater will optimistically lose around $500,000 over a year of operation. But that’s not all.
The town has made efforts to hire a staff of nineteen to help run the theater.
That’s right. Nineteen people. For a theater that will have an unknown attendance. Even at minimum wage, that will represent nearly another $400,000 of costs that do not include benefits and other mandated requirements. Even if the theater meets the most optimistic expectations, it should be expected to routinely lose money year over year. And this in turn begs the question:
Q: Who is paying for the Monroe Theater?
A: The taxpayers of Monroe. And you’re funding it in various ways.
- At the box office, paying for each ticket. The cost of each ticket is $9, $7 for Monroe Residents, and $6 if you pay an annual fee to the Downing organization (Downing retains those fees).
- In your tax bill. Part of the value of each assessed property (meaning that the property is not tax-exempt) will need to fund the town’s operating expenses and repayment of debt. The Monroe Theater represents both.
- Even if you don’t set foot inside the theater, you’ve effectively paid to see a film. You’ve done so in the reduction of taxes not paid by the theater for the village, town and school district. Every property in town — Monroe, Harriman, Kiryas Joel — will be paying to see a movie whether or not they wanted that.
And that happens in much the same way that you’ve paid for the paddle-boats. Using the town’s accounting transparency isn’t likely to lend any more insight into the matter since the original numbers provided by Martin are fundamentally flawed, lacking clarity around fixed-versus-variable costs (which forces one to question both the thought behind the budget and the competency behind the town’s financial controls), do not include the bond repayments, and have not included the full complement of staff slated to work at the “TMACC” as the Monroe Theater has been renamed.
What else can they do wrong?
- The Town of Monroe Website: $30,000. This was promoted as being able to host video, provide a “transparency portal” and be a one-stop and easy-to-navigate spot on the Web for anything related to Town Government. It’s proven the opposite. It often lacks current information, hard to navigate, and often impossible to find information. And the message for a “404: Page Not Found” reads as “You Found It!, and that happens too often. Plus, it’s built on an open-source platform that has not been updated since 2012.
- Updated Video Equipment: All of our town functions, and this was to be made available to all governments within the town as well as all town and village committees, were to have had use of brand new, “state-of-the-art” video equipment that would be facilitated on a new streaming platform to air on Cable Channel 22 as part of a renewal of franchise. Since then? We continue to see snowy video from circa-1980’s equipment, bad audio, and many pieces of meetings edited out when the Town Supervisor orders that cameras be shut-off.
- The “mold clean-up” of Town Hall. With little notice, the Town Hall on Stage Road was suddenly closed and all equipment transported to the basement of the Senior Center on Mine Road. The reason cited was a report from a mold test that identified high levels of mold, and accounts of employees becoming ill. But when the building was closed, all of the furnishings and files were moved into the Senior Center without having those also inspected for mold hazards, and potentially contaminating a new location. To date, there has been no visible activity related to clean-up, and no estimate for returning to Town Hall.
And that’s just naming a few.
What should be showing in the Monroe Theater instead?
Some suggested titles seem more apropos to the situation:
- The Money Pit
- Too Big to Fail
- Other People’s Money
- Inside Job
- Seven Psychopaths
- Matchstick Men
The Monroe Theater could be a magnet to draw visitors to other businesses in town. But it cannot be the sole magnet, nor can it revitalize the vitality of the Village’s business district. It’s only one tool that can help. The others include a more comprehensive plan that includes the cooperation of business owners, landlords, and town residents who have an interest in ensuring that Lake Street doesn’t turn into a long row of vacant windows.
But the Monroe Theater could have played a part had a private bidder participated. No private bidder would do that if the municipality expressed interested in the property as it did in 2012. And subsequent offers to purchase the property from the town and return it to the tax rolls have gone without response by the town.
At a time when the town faces larger issues, including the looming threat of a town board-supported annexation bid by developers to expand the Village of Kiryas Joel; inadequate funding for winter salt treatments for our roads; and, an aging water infrastructure that is requiring costly patches to several water districts, the expense of a tangible asset that will lose money is fiscally irresponsible. It also holds the potential for jeopardizing the future financial viability of Monroe.
Monroe residents do not need this folly, nor do most of them want the financial burden. The best hope for a viable enterprise is to sell the property to a private buyer/operator who has experience in successfully owning and managing a theater. Monroe needs to meet its basic obligations to its taxpayers, and that includes basic town services, not entertainment. Our government will have failed miserably if it runs a money-losing theater at the expense of safe roads and a reliable water infrastructure. But they’d be largely forgiven for realizing a bad decision and making a responsible one to correct it.
This site endorses the silent boycott of the Town-Owned-and-Operated theater, and we recommend that true fans of film take advantage of the other privately owned-and-operated theaters in the area. We stop short of any public action that can be seen as divisive or damaging to the business owners who call Monroe home, and urge others to actively patronize those merchants.
But let’s send a clear message that the seats in the Monroe Theater should remain empty, and that running a movie-house shouldn’t be done at the expense of the taxpayers or ensuring either basic services or fiscal responsibility.
The views expressed are solely those of this Website. Responsible replies invited, or feel free to join the discussion below.