Council Watch

Cash Confusion: The Delicate Business of Funding Treatment Programs for Musicians

Council Watch
By Doug Potter

Austin musicians ... leaders of our "live music capital" economy? Or a drugged-out drag on the rest of the city? That's the Big Social Question raised by the recent political wrangling over how to liquidate the resources of the recently defunct Music Industry Loan Program. The funny thing is that all parties in the dispute -- the Austin City Council, the Austin Music Commission, and the SIMS Foundation -- agree that a one-time city subsidy for mental health and substance abuse treatment for musicians is an admirable thing. But the terms of how to do that are proving a little tricky. Back in the late 1980s, when capital was a little harder to come by than it is now, the Austin City Council created the Austin Music Commission and the Music Industry Loan Program, designed to inject the scene with a little much-needed dough. A one-time allotment of about $150,000 was divided up among such deserving music businesses as the Austin Rehearsal Complex and Rock and Roll Rentals, and Austin music institutions such as Ray Hennig's Heart of Texas Music.

In the mid-Nineties, the city's economic development office was disbanded, and the loan programs were either discontinued or relocated to other departments. Meanwhile, repayment of the loans trickled back in to an obscure corner of the city's accounting ledger, more or less unnoticed by anyone.

It wasn't until earlier this year, when Music Commission Chair Bob Livingston began inquiring as to the whereabouts of the loan repayments, that $109,000 was discovered collecting dust, figuratively speaking, in the city's fund for Budget and Infrastructure Support Services. City Financial Officer Betty Dunkerley advised the commission that the loan program would not be revived.

Nobody can say exactly why the music loan program was discontinued, but everyone agrees that it was for a lack of funds and perhaps a lack of someone willing to fight for the money it would take to keep the program afloat. In a recently passed resolution, the Music Commission recommended the continuation of the loan program, but no one -- neither commissioners nor members of the music community -- is actively lobbying for the continuance.

So with the program effectively dead in the water, Dunkerley asked the commission (which did not protest the decision) to offer some recommendations for one-time expenditures of the money that would benefit the Austin music community.

The Music Commission's recommendations were as follows:

  • Purchase equipment needed to digitize the archives of the Austin Music Network ($34,500).

  • Purchase second-hand band instruments for donation to local school districts ($14,000).

  • Grant $61,141 to the SIMS foundation to fund mental health and chemical dependency services for musicians.

    That last recommendation has proved to be the potential deal breaker. City staff advised the commission that a direct grant to the SIMS Foundation was impossible, and that if the commission wanted to fund mental health and substance abuse treatment, it should recommend that a request for proposals (RFP) be issued for said services. If SIMS were the superior provider, they would win the contract.

    SIMS is a nonprofit which has been a national leader in providing low-cost mental health and substance abuse treatment services to musicians and their families -- people who, unlike the desk-and-cubicle set, are unlikely to have insurance covering their physical health, let alone mental health. SIMS' specialty is leveraging money -- because they have a network of clinics, hospitals, and individual therapists who provide their services at reduced rates, SIMS is able to leverage every dollar it gets into at least $3 worth of care for their clients.

    It was this mission that the Music Commission hoped to support with the $61,000 grant, but the action item when it came to the city council just mentioned an RFP for services; no SIMS, no leveraging. "I was trying to defend something that was so nebulous," said Livingston. "I was hemming and hawing, because we couldn't bring up SIMS." The ambiguity had consequences. Just handing out $61,000 for such a project didn't seem enough, said Council Member Daryl Slusher. Without an ongoing appropriation, is that really the best use of the money, he wondered?

    Council Member Bill Spelman took the logic one step further, questioning Assistant City Manager Marcia Conner about the city's current mental health and substance abuse programs. The answer: The city currently subsidizes treatment through MHMR for the following target groups: at-risk women, the homeless, and those referred to the program by the new downtown Community Court for repeat "public nuisance" offenders.

    Spelman suggested that this new money be channeled through the city's current program, perhaps with a new category added for musicians because, he said, "I'm willing to believe that musicians as a group have more need for mental health and chemical dependency services than, for example, state workers. And I'm willing to believe that some special effort ought to be made to ensure that these services are available to musicians and their families."

    The SIMS Foundation's Peyton Wimmer (who addressed the council as an "expert" in mental health and substance abuse services for musicians, but was not identified as the director of SIMS, due to the fact that the item wasn't supposed to be a SIMS handout in the first place) objected strongly to Spelman's willingness to make the above assumptions, calling them "a myth -- If SIMS gets this money, but if the string attached is to reclassify musicians as a needy population, and therefore a liability on the city, I wouldn't take the money."

    Those more familiar with Spelman's on-the-spot dais logic might not have taken this as a slur against musicians (if anything, it could have been a crack at state workers, of whom Spelman himself is one). But Wimmer does have a point: the characterization of Austin musicians as a trouble spot in the community would indeed be antithetical to one of the purposes of the Music Industry Loan Program, which, according to David Crider, who worked on the program, was to give the industry "exposure to the banks, making them aware of music industry as part of the local economy, exposing them to the business side of music so they would take it seriously. [Music] wasn't as recognized as it is now as an integral part of the community."

    Before its eventual fade-out, Crider said, the loan program had served its purpose, by serving as a guarantee for conventional loans from Austin area banks to music industry projects. As the loans were repaid, banks began to see the music projects as viable risks. This perception would not be enhanced, presumably, by the casting of the music community as a collection of mentally unstable drug fiends. It was Austin's own Fox-7 news that may have come closest to this characterization by running a graphic combining a guitar, pot leaf, and syringe.

    At any rate, the Music Commission's recommendation will be sent to the Community Action Network (CAN) for review, and the council will receive a reply in 60 to 90 days. As Spelman pointed out, it has been council policy since summer that all social service funding proposals have to be reviewed by CAN. (This saved the council no end of headache during budget talks, in addition to adding a measure of fairness to the sometimes arbitrary social services funding sweepstakes.)

    This is not the first time the Music Commission has run afoul of council politics. During last year's fight over whether to privatize the Austin Music Network, the commission was largely left out of the privatization push, and then was criticized for making an 11th-hour play to take over leadership of the station. These days, however, the commission is supportive of the network's new privatized team, and of AMN in general. As for the Music Commission, Livingston says they could use more instruction in the wild and wooly ways of council politics. Though he's grateful for the help of commission staffer Brenda Nester, who's based in the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, as well as the commission's informal council contact Jackie Goodman, "We don't have anyone who sits down and says, "This is what they're thinking,'" Livingston says of the council.

    Nevertheless, the commission could take a lead in the development of a powerful (and long underutilized) political constituency in the city. Especially with the addition of its new members, including Kevin Connor, morning deejay on KGSR, they have a constituency that, with a little organizing, could become a grassroots political force.

    This Week in Council: Council will not meet this week. But next week, they'll be back with the first full council meeting in over a month, and a whopper agenda that includes votes on the Gotham condominiums on Town Lake and proposed Champion tract development at RM 2222 and Loop 360 development. Watch this space next Thursday for a preview. end story

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    Austin Music Commission, Bob Livingston, SIMS, musician, Daryl Slusher, Bill Spelman, Austin City Council, Betty Dunkerley

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