More than a year after City Springs opened, members of the public finally can get their names engraved on brick pavers and theater seats at the Sandy Springs civic center in exchange for donations in a long-stalled program launched by the city Sept. 3. But the city, without explanation, is taking over the program from a troubled nonprofit foundation, leaving open such questions as whether the donations are tax-deductible and why the brick price has doubled from the original plan, which drew complaints from some City Council members.

The $300 bricks and $1,000 seats – or $1,200 for a combo donation – are already available on the City Springs website here, going live within hours of an approval by the City Council, whose members technically voted as the city Public Facilities Authority for legal reasons. The funds are intended to support youth arts education and general events at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center within City Springs.

“We finally are ready to sell the…bricks we have and do some fundraising for the Performing Arts Center,” Assistant City Manager Jim Tolbert said at the meeting. “Upon approval, they will be on sale by the time you wake up in the morning.”

Both programs allow donors to personalize the paver or seat with a personal name or brief message, subject to city approval. The brick program has available 1,500 bricks, which will be engraved and then installed along a walkway adjacent to the fountains in the City Green park. And 1,000 seats in the PAC’s Byers Theatre are available for an engraved plate that would be attached to the back.

According to city documents, each program distributes the donation money in different amounts. For the bricks, about 26% of the donation covers the engraving and installation; about 37% goes to PAC programming; and about 37% to arts education programming. For the seats, about 3% of the donation covers engraving and installation, while 71% goes to PAC programming and 26% to arts education.

The city is handling the engraving and installation, while the PAC staff specifically will handle marketing for the donation programs.

Foundation mystery

But why the city is running the program at all remains a mystery, as is the exact status of the Sandy Springs Arts Foundation, which the city established in 2017 to handle such fundraising programs in general and those brick- and seat-naming opportunities in particular. No city official at the Sept. 3 meeting even mentioned the foundation, though they discussed the tax deduction question raised by running the programs without it. City spokesperson Sharon Kraun later referred questions to the foundation.

Emily Hutmacher, former executive director of the Sandy Springs Arts Foundation. (Special)

Tolbert’s memo to the councilmembers about the donation plan also did not name the foundation, saying, “For several months the city staff has been looking for a way to facilitate this opportunity to raise funds for this purpose, but has been unable to find a practical partner.”

Since the Reporter revealed Aug. 16 that the foundation’s executive director, Emily Hutmacher, had left the organization without public announcement at an unknown time, its top board members – including chair Ken Byers, the theater’s namesake — have not responded to interview requests, and the city has declined to explain its knowledge of the nonprofit’s situation and its effect on PAC fundraising and programming.

However, on Sept. 3, Kraun and foundation board member Sunny Park offered brief comments that indicate the nonprofit is still operating in a limited fashion, and that Hutmacher left months ago without being replaced.

A “lack of staff” delayed the foundation from launching the naming program, Park said in an email. “We want[ed] to have a solid fundraising plan ready before launching the program, but…[the foundation] is running without an executive director for almost five months,” he said.

Kraun said the foundation is still providing some funding to the PAC’s educational programs and one of its concert series. “Relating to funding city initiatives, the foundation is a sponsor of City Green Live and recently approved funding dollars for our education programming in the upcoming season,” she said.

The foundation has had troubles from the start, which was belated as specialist attorneys figured out some legal complexities of its role in fundraising. It was intended to raise funds for general and arts programming at the PAC, as well as to vet naming opportunities up to the main theater building itself.

When the foundation board hired Hutmacher in the crucial role of executive director – the only staff position – in early 2018 after a slow start, there was only six months left before the PAC’s grand opening. She quickly cautioned the board about public and internal confusion regarding the Foundation’s mission and cut back on some fundraising gala plans she called overly ambitious. At the time, the organization was far behind on a $7.5 million fundraising goal, and she said it lacked capacity for even the simple brick-naming program. Eventually, the foundation secured one set of seat-naming donations – a nameplate on a theater box from Mayor Rusty Paul and the councilmembers, on behalf of their offices, not as individuals. But the brick-naming never materialized, despite several promises and a test version of a donation website that, at one point, accidentally went live for a brief period.

In late 2018, the foundation board severed its ties with the city and reorganized as a private nonprofit for several reasons, including the reduction of possible legal conflicts and to shield itself from laws requiring open meetings and open records for government-affiliated groups. That has left its operations largely secret.

Donation questions

A main reason the city established the foundation was the legal complexity of handling donations at the public civic center. In fact, the foundation’s work was delayed for months as specialist attorneys untangled the legal status of which agency can spend money on what at the civic center.

City Councilmember Tibby DeJulio

A core issue was the use of federal tax-exempt bonds to fund the $222 million project, which comes with a 10 percent limit on “private” use of the facility, a city staff attorney said in 2017.

It is unclear whether and how some of those legal questions are reopened by the city now taking over the naming donations itself. But one key question that officials could not answer was whether the brick- and seat-naming donations will be tax deductible.

Before the Sept. 3 vote, Councilmembers Andy Bauman and Tibby DeJulio asked about the tax deduction eligibility, since the city or the Public Facilities Authority are not typical nonprofits.

“Is this just a purchase or are we going to be able to make this a contribution?” DeJulio asked.

Tolbert, the assistant city manager, could only say that donors would have to consult their personal tax advisors. “We have been told it will be tax-deductible, but we just cannot assure something like that,” Tolbert said.

“You are going to eliminate people with money, myself included, who would not give money if it is not deductible,” DeJulio said.

DeJulio also raised the issue of the bricks being more expensive that originally planned. “How did we go from $150 up to $300? Are these bricks made of something special?” he asked.

Tolbert cited the $75 cost for the bricks to be engraved and installed. He also said that other local arts centers currently charge around the same amount for similar programs. “We are in the mid-range of where others are,” Tolbert said.

While the programs were approved, DeJulio held out as a vote against them.

“If [the funds are] going into the city of Sandy Springs, this is not going to work,” DeJulio said. “I think we need to do a little more homework.”

–John Ruch contributed

Hannah Greco is writer and media communications specialist based in Atlanta.