New developer fee to fund art in San Jose? District 6 candidates answer in face-off
San Jose City Council District 6 incumbent Dev Davis faced off against challenger Jake Tonkel In a debate hosted by San Jose Arts Advocates. Top left to right: Usha Srinivasan and Brendan Rawson. Bottom left to right: Dev Davis and Jake Tonkel. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

District 6 City Council candidates took on art — specifically making it more culturally equitable and charging developers a fee to fund it — in a debate hosted by the collaborative San José Arts Advocates.

The online discussion between incumbent Dev Davis and challenger Jake Tonkel took on importance given the city has seen a sharp drop in its Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT), known as the hotel tax. The tax is the main source of funding for city arts.

The debate was moderated by Brendan Rawson, executive director of San Jose Jazz, and Usha Srinivasan, founder of Sangam Arts.

Tonkel, a biomedical engineer, community activist and Green Party candidate, said he would like to see more culturally diverse art throughout the city.

“There are certain pockets with a great concentration of art galleries and murals,” Tonkel said, “but also areas that traditionally get left behind. I’d like to see us expand into neighborhoods that don’t have that same kind of access or voice within the city.”

Davis said she supports existing city events such as Silicon Valley Shakespeare and the jazz festival and called for music education in schools.

“We’re getting better at the diversity of voices and have a large focus on theater and visual arts,” Davis said. “I would just love to see more access to the symphony, especially for our younger kids.”

Srinivasan touched upon the need for equity in a city “rooted in diverse cultures.” She said, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 50% of households in San Jose speak a language other than English.

Srinivasan asked the candidates how they would build social cohesion.

Tonkel said the city needs to provide more multilingual meetings — from art to housing — and support diverse local artists.

“Jazz and art museums … fit a particular demographic,” he said. “When we have opportunities for people to engage in new kinds of art, you get that diverse perspective. At a city level, we have to prop up that diversity.”

Davis said the religious invocation at the start of City Council meetings did this.

“It’s a really good way to showcase the artist, and religion is a piece of our culture, to showcase the diversity in our city,” Davis said. “It’s been a cool way for many of us to learn and see what’s going on in other parts of the city.”

Davis said through grants, the city has sponsored murals across the district and sponsored cultural events, such as Silicon Valley Shakespeare, to make art more accessible.

Rawson asked if the candidates would support requiring developers to pay a 1% fee for public art. 

Davis said she supports studying it but couldn’t commit to voting for it. “We have to maintain that balance of being able to make sure developers still want to bring more jobs and build more housing in San Jose,” she said.

Tonkel said he would support the fee.

Srinivasan said although San Jose’s arts-and-culture sector generates more than $200 million annually and tax revenues of about $14.7 million, most of the Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) and cultural grants programs are funded by the hotel tax.

“This year, because of the pandemic, the TOT tax has plummeted,” she said, “resulting in a reduction of 70%, a $5 million deduction, in cultural grants programs.”

Srinivasan said artists propose an increase in the portion of the TOT allocated to cultural programs to further offset their loss. They also would like OCA administrative costs returned to the general fund, allowing a greater portion of hotel tax resources to be dedicated to arts grants.

Davis said 60% of hotel tax dollars are allocated to the arts (40% go to the city’s general fund) and the city provided a coronavirus relief fund of $2.4 million for cultural grants and administration.

“In terms of having a greater portion of TOT … 60% is quite a bit already,” Davis said. “There might be a way we could do a little bit more.”

She said having the Office of Cultural Affairs added to the general fund budget would potentially put it on the chopping block due to shortages to come.

Tonkel spoke of the city’s need to address inequality in funding for the arts and suggested an inequality tax on the wealthy.

“The inequality in wages could be utilized for art investment,” Tonkel said. “We have families struggling to survive and skipping meals for their kids. This doesn’t bode well for getting people out of their homes and engaging in the art and culture of the city.”

Rawson said half of the 60% the art community receives from TOT goes to the convention visitor’s bureau and operations of the convention center and asked the candidates to identify other ways the city could fund the arts.

Tonkel suggested an art impact fee.

“Having the flexibility through other tax allocation measures to inject funds to create that vibrancy is really important,” he said.

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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