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Editorial: City must tough it out on financing Community Center Theater renovation

City leaders have no easy way to pay for a long-overdue renovation of Sacramento’s Community Center Theater, but they have no real choice, either. The project has to be done, sooner rather than later.

A much-anticipated report, to be discussed tonight by the City Council, concludes that the city can’t borrow for the $50million renovation until next year at the earliest – and that the bonds would have to be backed by the general fund.

That’s because the hotel room tax – which otherwise would be used to finance the bonds directly – is in precarious shape and is already partly pledged as the fail-safe if parking revenues fall short of what is required to finance the city’s share of the planned downtown arena.

Under City Treasurer Russell Fehr’s plan, the hotel tax would be used to reimburse the general fund for the projected $2.2million a year for theater financing. But if hotel tax revenues aren’t enough – and they dropped 20percent during the recession – the theater repayment could squeeze money for public safety and other services paid out of the general fund.

Yet the city can’t wait too long on the renovation because it is mostly to comply with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. So far, the city has avoided a court order forcing the fixes by starting the planning and design in 2000. It’s a pretty safe bet, however, that any council vote to delay the project would invite a lawsuit.

The city has been successfully sued before over access for the disabled. Alexandra Stoffel, at the time a St. Francis High School student paralyzed by cancer treatment and spine surgery, complained that theatergoers in wheelchairs were forced to sit in the back. Under a 2009 consent decree, the city did not admit fault but agreed to spend $80,000 to renovate two rows of orchestra seats to make room for four wheelchairs.

The theater, however, has not had a major overhaul since opening in 1974. It is also part of a broader, longer-term vision by boosters of expanding the Sacramento Convention Center. So far, the city has set aside $12million toward the theater renovation, but barring a sizable private donation, the city would have to borrow the rest. It would take about $45million in debt and $3million a year in debt service, Fehr’s report says. A surcharge of $3 per ticket on theater events would raise as much as $800,000 a year for repayments, but the rest would come from the general fund one way or another.

Bottom line, it’s a tough call facing City Council members. They have been successfully lobbied by arena supporters. Now, they need to hear from those across the Sacramento region who want to see the ballet, symphony and Broadway shows in a modern theater that finally welcomes disabled arts lovers as well.