Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

IT'S NO SECRET Portland's arts groups are disappointed with how the city's 2012 arts tax has turned out—unlike, say, the city's schools, who seem relatively thrilled.

The tax was famously sold as a $12 million annual lifeline for arts education, more than enough to hire elementary school art teachers and also help cultural organizations expand their offerings for at-risk and needy kids. And arts organizations worked hard to see it passed.

It hasn't worked out so well.

Thanks in part to exemptions passed by Portland City Council and scofflaws' refusal to pay up on time (or even at all), collections have lagged expectations by a few million bucks. And because of the tax's funding formula, the schools will always get to fill their bowls first—leaving arts groups with the scraps.

Which is how it came to pass that schools, after the first year of collections, received more than $6.7 million—while the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC), in charge of dispensing grants to worthy nonprofits, initially received only $200,000 (Those figures were listed in a March 27 online update posted by the city's revenue bureau; Thomas Lannom, the city's revenue director, says the number has since climbed to $900,000.)

Those figures will improve after this year's collections, although by how much remains in flux. But even in the best-case scenario, shared by both city hall and the arts community, the tax won't ever hit its advertised heights.

"It's looking more like a $10 million tax," says a slightly rueful Jeff Hawthorne, RACC's director of community engagement.

And yet? For all that discouragement, there's a bit of hope. It comes courtesy of Mayor Charlie Hales—following in the arts cheerleading footsteps of his predecessor, Sam Adams.

On July 22, Hales wrote RACC's director, Eloise Damrosch, a warm letter acknowledging the likely funding gap (though he's crossing his fingers that adding the tax to TurboTax will boost collections). Four paragraphs in, according to a copy obtained by the Mercury (pdf), he makes an underlined promise: "I will commit to making certain that if a gap remains, my staff and I will help find a way to fill it."

Hales hadn't returned from a business trip to Japan when I called his office to ask precisely what he meant. Might he seek city money to offset the difference? Or might he take other steps, like rallying support from private donors?

"'Help' is the operative word," says Hales' spokesman, Dana Haynes, cautioning that there's a difference between promising assistance and promising a result.

But some kind of financial award might be on the table during budget adjustment talks this fall and overall budget talks next year.

Hales' office says it's looking at reworking the city's annual contract with RACC, after some tension this spring over how much the city owed. The contract spells out two possible mechanisms for raises: inflation or the percentage increase in hotel tax revenues, whichever's higher. This year, as the Mercury reported, Hales' office tried going with the cheaper of the two. There's also talk of tapping surplus money on a one-time basis.

"The mayor made his intention clear," says Josh Alpert, Hales' director of strategic initiatives. "We want to be good partners."

Hawthorne was happy to hear there's interest in changing RACC's contract. But RACC, he says, sees it as separate from the tax. He hopes to keep talking about some other solutions.

The arts tax "was definitely meant to be additive," he says. As for how much?

"It's really just an open question."