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Hale Centre Theatre’s bid for more taxpayers’ money creates drama

Hale got $857K in ’12, asks legislators for $2M extra for a new venue.

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Rewards of community theater » No other community theater in the nation matches Hale’s in compensation for top staff, according to a 2011 salary poll conducted by the American Association of Community Theatre in Fort Worth, Texas. Only Florida’s Venice Theatre, with a top salary of $99,000 plus a retirement stipend, approaches it. A third of community theaters nationally reported offering retirement plans to chief administrative officers, according to the poll.

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Julie Crawford, association executive director, said any comparison must be taken in context. "There’s a direct correlation between salary and size and depth of operation," she said by email. "Hale Centre Theatre’s budget is far more than any other community theater budget in our records."

Beyond annual compensation, Hale also maintains a $411,456 fund in deferred compensation, tax records show, for eventual dispersal in the retirement funds of those Brough calls the company’s "10,000-hour people."

"They’re the key people you’d hate to lose, and who work over and above expectations," he said. The Dietleins and Lange are included that group.

Four company cars also come into play: three for employees in the theater’s technical and shop side for use in assembling productions, Brough said, plus one for the business and personal use of Mark Dietlein. That’s a perk less than 5 percent of even professional theaters provide their department heads, according to a 2012 employee benefit survey by the Theatre Communications Group.

Legislative money isn’t the only taxpayer-funded source of revenue at play. Hale collects a significant share of Zoo, Arts and Parks (ZAP) funds administered by Salt Lake County under a complex formula that covers slightly more than 16 percent of each organization’s qualifying expenses.

When the theater first qualified for a share of ZAP sales-tax monies, it collected 7.5 percent of funds for that top-ranking tier. Hale will receive 9.4 percent of those same funds for 2012, according to a county estimate. Only Utah Symphony|Utah Opera, at 24 percent, and Ballet West, with 10.9 percent, rank higher. According to tax records last year, Hale collected $857,112 in combined ZAP funds plus its annual line-item appropriation from the Legislature.

When Hale lobbied for state money toward its operations in 2007, Utah lawmakers, including then-House Budget Chairman Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley City, who helped initiate the annual appropriation, pleaded ignorance to the salary size of the theater’s top brass. Lawmakers sidestepped the issue of the Dietleins’ compensation and others on the staff to laud the theater for its commitment toward "family-oriented entertainment."

Hughes didn’t return an email request for comment regarding his $2 million request on behalf of the theater. Sally Dietlein and Lange forwarded requests for comment to the theater’s public-relations spokesman, Chris Thomas of the Intrepid public relations firm. Thomas did not respond to requests for an interview with Mark Dietlein.

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The theater’s board reviews all salaries, in line with national comparisons of nonprofit organizations of comparable size. "If you look at salaries of comparable management positions, [Dietleins’ and Lange’s salaries and compensation are] somewhere in the 49th to 50th percentile," Brough said. "They’re a little below average when you acknowledge the multiple hats each of them wears."

The price of great theater » Heads of other Utah theater organizations have their own opinions about Hale’s latest move, some still colored by the community theater’s successful 2007 effort to collect $87,500 in ongoing funding from taxpayers. The move rankled some in Utah’s theater community, who worried it would bring a new era of funding Utah arts in which political connections mattered more than artistic merit.

Chris Lino, managing director of Pioneer Theatre Company, said he had the same reaction upon hearing of Salt Lake City’s plans to build its $110 million mega-theater. He notes simply that his company has carried out two capital campaigns—one in 1998 for $5.5 million, another in 2011 for $2.6 million. Neither required asking for taxpayer funds.

"We’re proud of that," Lino said. "If there’s a real need for a certain type of facilities project, then your friends and donors will step forward to support it."

Lino and PTC artistic director Karen Azenberg, a New York theater professional and board president of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, each earns $110,000 annually, with the University of Utah contributing 14 percent of their salaries into personal retirement accounts.

Jansen Davis, executive director of Centerville’s CenterPoint Legacy Theatre, said he makes $60,000 a year as head of the community-theater company. He has noticed the wide cast of Hale’s fundraising net.

"I don’t know that the state would be our first source, because it’s not really the community we serve," Jansen said. "Our first community is Davis County."

R. Scott Phillips, Utah Shakespeare Festival’s executive director, said he wished Hale "all the luck in the world" in raising money for its new theater. What Phillips questions is the strategy of asking the Legislature for money at the beginning of fundraising efforts. Nothing impresses better than displaying to lawmakers money you’ve already raised from private sources, before you resort to public options.

"I’d never question [Hale’s] right to go to the Legislature," Phillips said. "Whether it’s appropriate now is a different question."

When Phillips approached the Legislature early last year with a request for $5 million to help add to $18 million his team had already raised, he also presented a study showing that the annual theater festival in Cedar City generated $35 million in economic activity for the state, much of that new money coming in from bordering states.

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