By TANYA PEREZ-BRENNAN The Times-Union The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and its musicians are at an impasse as they struggle to deal with the symphony's mounting debt. The symphony says it has a $2.4 million deficit and has proposed shortening the symphony season by two weeks, cutting musicians' salaries by 10 percent and suspending pension contributions and paid leave. The musicians say they just signed a five-year contract in February and expect the symphony to honor it. If implemented, the proposed cuts would be put into effect over the next two years. Decreased attendance and ticket sales have contributed to the $2.4 million cumulative deficit, officials say. The proposed budget for this year, which includes the reduced musicians' salaries, is $6.2 million. Without the proposed cuts, the budget would be $6.6 million. The budget before cuts included $3 million for musicians' salaries and benefits. With the cuts, it would be reduced by $380,000. The rest of the budget is for artistic operations, production, marketing, patron services, fund-raising, education and youth orchestra, administration and other operating expenses. "The problem is our overall expenses grew faster than our income," said Alan Hopper, the symphony's executive director. "We're trying to look at income levels that are sustainable and build around that." Individual ticket sales actually are up 22 percent over last year. But Hopper said more than a quarter of the symphony's total income comes from subscriptions, or season ticket sales, which have remained at the same level as last year. Corporate donations are about the same as last year but Hopper said the symphony can't count on big corporate donations when preparing the budget. Some years the donations are there, other years they're not. "You look at what you can project as stable revenue and get your expenses at that level," he said. To balance the budget, cuts have to be made in areas other than the administrative and staffing end, he said. Since 2001, administrative expenses have been cut by 21 percent, he said. Several administrative positions have been consolidated. In 2001, the full-time administrative staff numbered 24; this year the number is 15. The budget for guest artists also was reduced from $600,000 in 2002 to $370,000 this year, Hopper said. Musicians say this is the second time in two years they've been asked to take a pay cut and they want their contract to be honored. "We don't want to take another pay cut, and we feel [management] needs to raise money," said Susan Pardue, chairwoman of the musicians' negotiating committee. "I would think that the last thing they would do is cut musicians' salaries. I just think they're doing it because maybe it's easier, maybe it's a quick fix." The base salary for a musician now is $33,152; under the proposed cuts it would be reduced to $29,960, Pardue said. Fabio Mechetti, the symphony's music director, said that management acknowledges the musicians' concerns. "It's very difficult to ask musicians for more concessions," he said. "The reality is we have a cumulative deficit that's very significant." He said long-term economic challenges weren't really taken into account during last year's negotiations. "We had a Band-Aid solution to the problem," he said. The symphony's financial problems come at a time when symphonies across the country are struggling, Hopper said. There are at least five other symphonies in the country -- including in mid-size markets such as Colorado Springs, Colo.; San Antonio; and Savannah, Ga.-- that have folded. Still, it isn't fair to compare the Jacksonville orchestra to orchestras in other cities and blame financial shortfalls on a shaky economic climate, Pardue said. "The ones that have been run well have flourished," she said. "There is definitely money to be raised in Jacksonville and others are able to do it. We have always been stable and grown. We need to look at our own situation in Jacksonville rather than the few [orchestras] that have folded." This time, Mechetti said, the symphony has a strategic plan to address its financial woes. Only two options will work -- making more budget cuts and raising more money. "A combination of both will put the orchestra on the ground," Mechetti said. One part of the strategic plan already put in place, said Hopper, is a marketing campaign to attract new audiences. Presented to the board in September, the plan already has shown results, said Josh Schwerdtfeger, the symphony's director of sales. The symphony also has made efforts to reach out to a younger demographic by creating Opus, its young and professional group, and by creating programs such as the Barbecue of Seville, which drew close to 900 people this year, Schwerdtfeger said. Last year, 300 attended. But while the musicians acknowledge these efforts, they say management must do more to solve the problem, and continuing to cut their salaries and benefits will only hurt the symphony in the long run. One big fear is that the less musicians get paid, the more they will have to devote their time to other activities, which will affect the quality of the product people see on stage, Pardue said. Mechetti said he thinks musicians are anxious because they don't see a long-term solution. But he said he thinks they probably would accept some cuts if a concrete effort was in place to make changes. And there needs to be more support from the community, he said. "No plan will work if we don't have community backing," he said. "We need people to value what we offer. An orchestra is as good or as bad as the community wants it to be."