The Monroe Theater: A lesson in failure.
Recently, Town of Monroe Supervisor Harley Doles took to the Municipal Cable Access channel (Cablevision channel 22) with a plea to his constituents. The message was simple:
- The theater is failing miserably under town ownership, please visit to help save it.
From the very beginning, Town of Monroe ownership of the former Monroe 6 Cinema was a lesson in why a municipality shouldn’t engage in operating something better left to private enterprise. Informed readers might recall Councilman Ric Colon’s action to purchase the theater out from under auction, despite the later discovery that qualified and interested buyers were ready to purchase it. To finance the purchase after the fact, the Town issued a bond for $800,000, to be repaid in installments over a 5-year term.
Grass-roots organizations filed legal actions against the municipal ownership, and two lawsuits were brought against the town to return it to private ownership. Even subsequent to the purchase, the Town was approached with offers to sell the property, offers that would have repaid the bond issue and permitted the Town to avoid embarrassment. Supervisor Harley Doles rejected the notion of any sale of the property and return to private ownership. Once the legal issues were settled in favor of the town, the clock began ticking on opening the facility presumably to show movies. This, too, was destined for certain failure.
The Monroe Theater has six screens. Only three (3) were opened to show movies. This left 3 additional screens unused, paving the way for Doles’ vision of a municipal theater for Town Board meetings, and that theater was prepped not with the latest equipment to show first-run movies, but devices to display documents, images, and PowerPoint presentations. Along with that were several cameras and microphones to record meetings, and several people who would run through the audience with microphones for public comment. Suddenly, one useful screening room was transformed into a bad version of a TV chat show with questions from the audience.
Reflecting back to the reason injunctions preventing use of the theater were lifted, one stated use was to open a 3-story theater in order to make available its rest rooms. That’s right. Rather than the cost of a portable toilet, which has only been needed during major events in Crane Park, Doles would rather open a theater and pay for security so that people could use its bathrooms.
Fast forward to present day, and it seems that the Town still wants to flush money away rather than make a fiscally responsible decision.
But to put this in perspective, one needs to consider the costs — including the loss of tax revenue to the Village of Monroe, Town of Monroe, and the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District — and the revenues. The Town Board would rather extol how many people have used facilities like the Round Lake Paddle Boats or the Theater, but they’d rather not explain the true costs and net-profit/net-loss of these ventures. Again, this Board is great about pissing money away, but has proven itself inept in making sound financial decisions. So given the most recent numbers available — ones that Supervisor Doles has boasted repeatedly — let’s explore what his decisions have cost the taxpayers of Monroe.
The Accounting Shell-Game.
From its opening before Memorial Day, 2015 through October, The Monroe Theater has counted 15,000 patrons. This is a 4 1/2 month period, and we can presume a reasonable estimate of $7 per ticket (some slightly higher, some lower, many discounted). That equals revenue of $105,000, not good numbers for a theater, and numbers that were depressed based on the use of only half the theater viewing capacity — 3 screens versus all 6. Extending that trend to a full 12 months at the same rate would yield $280,000 in revenue.
Expenses — and there are many– include the fees paid to the Downing Film Center for booking of films ($154,000 per year), principal and interest on the bond ($172,000 per year), and the fixed and variable costs of operation which included but are not limited to staff, supplies, utilities, janitorial, maintenance, and other associated costs. Before even paying the bond and Downing, the theater’s operations are already running at a deficit, and that’s using simple accounting. Accounting costs that we know only in part because the full costs of the theater are not disclosed, and running costs are simply transferred across various budget lines by means of reallocation.
However, given that the building is also used for Town Board meetings, there are variable costs for lighting, water/sewer and climate control that incrementally increase based on use, and for which no revenue is collected. This only makes a bad situation worse. On a full-year basis, the theater has lost $56,000 at its present run rate without even considering all of those additional costs. But this gets worse.
Because the Town of Monroe owns the facility, it becomes a tax-exempt property. This results in a combined annual loss of tax revenue of $60,000 that the school district and Village would have otherwise received. For the three years of ownership, that is a decrease of $180,000 and counting. It’s also created a loss of tax ratables for the Town that cannot be calculated, but for the sake of argument, let’s suggest another $20,000/year based on assessed value, or $60,000 over the three years that has not been collected.
When you finally finish adding the numbers, it becomes clear that the Monroe Theater is and continues to be a money-losing proposition with no chance of breaking even in the short or long term. Some of the details and their sources:
- $516,000 – Bond principal and interest (2013-2015)
- $94,770 – Downing Organization fees (2015 inclusive, @ $154,000/year)
- $543,000 – Estimated operating costs (per Town Comptroller, noting that several are actually incorrectly stated as fixed costs versus variable); actual costs are likely significantly higher based on number of employees and increased utilities and variable costs.
- $180,000 – $240,000 – tax revenue not realized.
That doesn’t include expenditures to renovate and update the theater, costs that are well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and which include a terrazzo floor and giant chess board, both of which were extravagances that taxpayers can ill afford.
How much has Doles’ bad decision cost taxpayers?
So far, that’s at least a cost to the taxpayers of Monroe of well over $1.4 million, and only $105,000 toward recouping that. If that was made into a movie, it would be “Brewster’s Millions”.
And every day that Harley Doles insists on keeping ‘TMACC’ open means a further running deficit. Some of that will continue regardless of the theater’s operations. Others simply compound the problem. Which leaves one very obvious solution.
The answer is to sell the property to a private investor — and there are people who have approached Doles and the Town Board on the prospect — and turn a money losing investment sitting in the wrong hands into a taxable property once again in the hands of professionals with experience in operating a theater. It’s a decision Doles refuses to make, and that isn’t surprising.
Harley Doles has spent thousands of dollars more to turn Round Lake into a “duck-boat concession”, one that continues to lose money on both the initial investment and the costs of maintenance. Common to both of these decisions are a desire for Doles to simply do as he pleases without taxpayer and resident input.
No one near Round Lake requested requested it become a very gaudy paddle-pond that loses money, just as no one has asked that Monroe purchase a theater to operate at a taxpayer-funded loss. Both are decisions made largely by Harley Doles, and made entirely without public input. But they’re decisions that ultimately become funded by taxpayers. Had the Town Supervisor listened to his constituents — those mostly living south of the Quickway — he would have discovered that he lacked the support for any of these fantasy endeavors that turn the Town of Monroe into a money-losing amusement park. And those who were quick to laud the re-opening of the theater as a success are now among the missing as we witness its slow demise in the irresponsible hands of local government.
The new ownership of The Monroe Theater began municipal life without a plan. As aptly stated, a failure to plan is a plan for failure. And failed it has.
It’s time our citizens take notice and demand the accountability and transparency that Supervisor Doles routinely preaches but rarely practices. In a tight fiscal environment, and at a time when Monroe property values are decreasing with the recent decision to approve a Kiryas Joel annexation request, the Town will certainly find itself lacking for revenue, and homeowners would be well-served to challenge any assessments that do not reflect that decrease in value. It’s time for irresponsible fiscal policy to stop.
Responsible replies welcomed.