ALBANY — The Albany City Commission has asked City Manager James Taylor to explore the possibility of a $150,000 budget amendment that would benefit the Flint RiverQuarium.
Taylor's budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2013, which begins July 1, did not include funding for the downtown educational and tourist attraction.
The current budget, which ends June 30, included $275,000 for the aquarium.
RiverQuarium CEO Sanders Lewellen asked the commission Tuesday to consider matching the $150,000 that the facility has generated through fundraising efforts.
"We're hunting in every field and fishing in every pond to fund our operations, but it's an uphill climb," Lewellen said. "Since I've come on board we've cut our budget internally by more than $341,000 and yet we still face challenges."
The aquarium's annual budget is just more than $1 million, down nearly $400,000 from last year.
Among the "challenges" that Lewellen pointed out to commissioners Tuesday were a $20,000-per-month electricity bill from the Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission and a tough fundraising market. Lewellen said making ends meet on ticket sales alone is not feasible.
"For us to make our operation work on just ticket sales, we'd have to raise prices to somewhere in the Disney range, and we're not going to do that; we can't do that," Lewellen said. "So we have to have a combination of revenue sources in order to keep our educational programs and our guides."
And despite the fact that commissioners are staring down the barrel of a possible property tax increase in order to balance the FY2013 budget, some at the table Tuesday seemed to sympathize with Lewellen.
"If we're talking about the future of downtown and the revitalization of downtown, we can't just abandon it," Albany Mayor Dorothy Hubbard said. "But we also have an obligation to the taxpayers."
Some on the commission seemed to like the idea of finding an alternative method of funding entities like the RiverQuarium outside of property taxes.
"Is there some way that we can designate a portion of the hotel/motel tax to the RiverQuarium?" Ward IV Commissioner Roger Marietta asked.
"The law gives more flexibility if you are at the 8 percent tax level, but not presently," City Attorney Nathan Davis answered.
Changing the hotel/motel tax from the 7 percent currently levied to the 8 percent maximum would require local legislation and a public referendum which couldn't be done until at least next Spring.
"I don't think we should abandon the RiverQuarium long-term," Marietta said, before asking Hubbard if the commission could ask Taylor to explore what impact funding the RiverQuarium at the $150,000 level would have on the proposed budget.
Currently, the city of Albany is the only government entity that subsidizes the RiverQuarium. The Dougherty County Commission stopped subsidizing the organization two years ago.