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The Grinch Who Stole Cinema

Friends of The Screening Room team up to raise money for a dubious tax bill

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The tax man cometh. The Screening Room, downtown's alternative cinema space, has been slapped with a tax bill that organization head Giulio Scalinger thinks he shouldn't have to pay. Actually, he can't pay it. So, some local filmmakers, performance poets and hip-hop artists are putting on a "Damn the Man" tax-bill benefit this weekend--on the appropriately ominous date of Friday the 13th.

"The Screening Room has always been generous to us with the Poetry Crawl," says the poet who bills himself as the Funktional Adix. "So this just seemed like the right thing to do."

Funk, as he's called, is masterminding the hat-passing hootenanny with fellow poet and Poetry Crawl producer David Mitchell. They'll be joined on stage by performance artist Austin Publicover (also known as Damedged Aesthetician) and a hip-hop poet fresh from Philadelphia named Kwam ("He's got a street edge to his work," says Funk). Vanpeasy of the rock band the Have Nots will perform a solo and sell his CD, donating some of the proceeds to The Screening Room. There will also be some live performance video shot locally.

"I hope a lot of independent filmmakers will come out of respect for the help The Screening Room has given them," adds Funk.

Scalinger says he's grateful for the benefit, but annoyed that it's necessary. "We're trying to get (the Tucson Pima Arts Council) to look into why struggling nonprofits have to pay all these property taxes," he says. "It makes them not want to buy their own buildings. Technically, you are waived these taxes if you're nonprofit, but obviously, it doesn't always work out that way. It defeats the purpose if everyone in the organization is volunteering. We're operating on a shoestring, and then we have to pay more money back to the government agencies that should be supporting us."

Scalinger admits that part of the problem is his own fault. When The Screening Room purchased the Congress Street building in 1996 (the same building it had been leasing since 1989), Scalinger and his group didn't realize they needed to file a form declaring their operation to be a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization. "A couple of years later," he says, "the property tax people said, 'You've made a mistake,' and hit us with back taxes. So we refinanced the building and were able to pay that off, but we still have an appeal to get back our tax-exempt status. We've given them this big 20-page dissent on why we're not a commercial theater. Hopefully the money will come back, but it will be difficult."

Even if that were settled, Scalinger has run up against yet another tax problem: In the past six months, he's been put on notice that The Screening Room must pay personal property tax on equipment and furniture used in day-to-day operations.

The Screening Room is by no means the only theater that's had to face dubious tax claims. Just down the street, for example, is the Fox Theatre, which was taken over by the nonprofit Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation four years ago and has been undergoing a long process of heavy restoration.

"The county said to us, 'Sure you're a nonprofit, but you don't occupy the building,'" recounts Fox executive director Herb Stratford. "We said, 'But the mission of the organization is to restore and operate the theater; we've got crews here restoring it, and once they're finished, we'll open.' They said that until we're open, we should pay property tax. I had to show them that I had staff offices in the building and that the restoration was ongoing, but even then, they were not interested in giving us an exemption. They didn't want to take it off the tax rolls, because the $8,000 a year they wanted from us is a substantial amount of money."

According to Stratford, the county relented literally minutes before the case was to come up before the state real estate board that at that time was hearing tax appeals. But Stratford is still arguing with the county over taxes on the old Arizona Daily Star building and an adjacent lot behind the Fox; the foundation is using the Star building as offices, and the lot is going to be a staging area for the theater. "They came for a site visit and everything, but they said they had no ability within the code as it was written to exempt us, even though they admitted this was our office and we're a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization," says an incredulous Stratford.

"What irritates us is that we're fund-raising to pay taxes we shouldn't have to pay in the first place," he says.

Which brings us back to The Screening Room benefit. Says Scalinger, "By Aug. 19, we have to come up with $1,300, or the sheriff will come along and take $1,300 worth of property." If the benefit doesn't raise enough money, that might not be such a tragedy, Scalinger jokes. "Maybe we should just let the sheriff come in and cart out all this junk."

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