Bad Government, Worse Politics

5 Oct

You may get sick of hearing it, but let me repeat the fundamental truth of American politics: the public does not want bigger government, or smaller government, but rather competent government. By that standard, Erie County continues to fail.

Kevin Gaughan’s legislature downsizing initiative may miss the ballot because two Board of Elections officials, themselves flawless personifications of the inbred Western New York entitlement-based political culture, have found a legal loophole they think they can squeeze through. Never mind that they allowed the same process last year, for a (failed) referendum sponsored by the wife of one of the board officials. Call the whole process Ianello’s Revenge.

Erie County’s property taxes, low by New York State’s otherworldly standards, are still nationally in the top 10, when compared to the percentage of the value of the house they are taxing. This is an insidious drain on our area’s resources, leaking out monthly into escrow in your mortgage payment. Allow my situation to represent the starkest comparison: I unfortunately own two homes, one here in WNY, and the other in Las Vegas, where I used to live, and became an unintentional landlord (anyone want to buy a house in vegas at 2005 prices?). The homes are worth roughly the same, have roughly the same monthly mortgage payment, and roughly the same percentage rate. In Buffalo, 55% of my monthly payment goes to escrow, for taxes and insurance. In Vegas, the figure is 15%. Or, in other words, only 45% of my payment is building me equity (or is tax deductible interest) in Buffalo, but 85% of my Vegas payment is useful. We crow about our low home prices here, but the average citizen builds wealth faster in their home (increasing the overall wealth of the community) in other parts of the country, bubble or not.

The question is not whether the taxes are high or low, but whether I am getting a good deal for my money. Don’t you suspect that we could be doing all that government does for a lot less cost? In Western New York, our personal income to housing cost ratio is high, which should be good for attracting outside businesses to the area. However, it’s bad for property taxes, since it takes a ridiculous percentage of home value to fund union salaries for Erie County workers. Funding an $80K/year corrections officer would be easier if the average house price in Buffalo was $300K, and not $68K.

Which is why our county tries to rely on the fickle sales tax to generate an above average portion of the total budget. I don’t mind balancing our books on the back of Canadian shoppers and spill-over tourism from Niagara Falls. But it leads to projection problems, irregular debt, a significant rainy day fund to bridge gaps, and, as is the policy debate de jour, conflict at budget time.

County Executive Chris Collins’ budget was destined to make everyone upset. Because it comes from his mouth and his office, it receives more acrimony than is usually present with a simple partisan divide. But it also fulfills campaign promises, which always sound better in theory than practice. He lays off workers, trims the library budget, shrinks the comptroller’s office, and, in the horror of horrors, nips $600K from the arts and culturals budget.

As Alan Bedenko points out, it is only because the county has control over such a small percentage of the budget that the conflict is so heated. Dogs always fight harder over the last scraps on the bone. This fight over $600K in county funding borders on the absurd in light of the following facts:

1) The Niagara River Greenway Commission controls $9M a year in funding for an asset utilized by far more tourists and locals (parks and green space along both lakes and Niagara River), but nary a peep is heard in the general public about its woeful record.

2) The Erie County IDA gives away more money in one session than the entire county arts budget combined, to help for-profit companies employing fewer workers. The only consistent criticism of this process is from local libertarians, but a tiny shrinking of the IDA budget could pay for all the arts we can handle.

3) The last county contract with CSEA, representing 4200 workers, gives a 15% pay raise, entrenches free healthcare for life for those hired before 2006, and mandates only a 15% employee contribution for new worker’s healthcare. Workers got $500 checks for each year since the last contract in 2006, as a sweetener. Cost to the county? $4.1M, or a rough doubling of culturals funding.

But the arts funding is receiving the press, and the criticism comes from two basic vantage points.

Alan correctly sums up a view held by a majority of Democrats that Collins is a giant jerk, and no matter what the funding decision is, they don’t want him to be the one that makes it. If the County legislature, or the advisory arts council, or my pet dog had made the decision to cut arts funding, that might be okay. But Collins is a dictator, and this is more proof. No matter the motivation, the Erie County charter does give the county executive far broader powers than are present at the federal level (for instance), so Collins is legally no more of a dictator than the law allows. The voting public will have a chance to remove Collins in the future if they don’t like the style. But it is a matter of style, not substance.

The other view is ably expressed by Colin Dabkowski and Jeff Simon, both of the Buffalo News. They make an argument for funding of the arts based purely on its merits. And while I agree with the sentiment (I like the arts too, and the groups that lost funding), I take issue with this unspoken premise: funding of a particular group in the past entitles that group to perpetual funding in the future, with the related subscript, cutting of county funding is an affront to these group’s right to exist.

Simon especially implies that Collins sees “no “reason for being”” for Shakespeare in the Park, because its county funding was cut. Since when is the county of Erie the sole or prime arbiter of an art group’s success, relevancy, vitality, or existence. It is one funding stream, and I hope, a small one. A community’s support of the arts, especially arts that exist to enrich that community and not cater to outsiders, should not exemplified in government funding. The county is not issuing, by royal decree, orders on which groups may exist or not. It is choosing which to fund, from county tax dollars, and nothing else.

Community based arts have a variety of funding streams: foundations, corporate sponsors, state and national grants, donors, and (one would hope, if a community asset) patrons. Even the Zoo sold wrist bands for a new elephant house. I question the impact and viability of any group that truly relies on county funding for its perpetuation. Despite talk to the contrary, Shakespeare in the Park will be fine, as it is a community asset. It will find enough revenue from the list at the start of this paragraph to continue. All 20 theaters that lost funding may not. But plenty of arts organizations exist now with no previous county funding (Sugar City, anyone), and I’m sure some of them are at least a bit indignant that they have grown and survived, and yet never got to feed from the trough at all.

Collins suffers from a lack of tact and communication. His desire to use arts funding to promote tourism is defensible and legitimate. Erie County is not the National Endowment of the Arts; the county executive has a right to an agenda, and to use taxpayer’s money as an investment as part of a policy strategy. It would nice if Collins himself would take the time to explain his motive and intent – he should borrow Mayor Brown’s podium more often.

Coming around full circle, let me offer two suggestions for arts funding that subscribe to a more “competent” government model, instead of simply bigger and smaller. If you are a supporter of the arts, please comment on my recommendations. Mssrs. Dabkowski and Simon are free to respond as well, if they are WNYMedia readers (which they should be):

1) Trim $400K from the big four receivers of funding (Zoo, Science Museum, BPO and Albright-Knox), and give it to the smaller groups instead. Can the Zoo do with $1.3M instead of $1.4M? This is the hatchet method, not the scalpel one, but it restores funding to the smaller groups, if they are so deserving and needy.

2) Preferably, turn arts funding on its head. If Collins were the entrepreneurial business leader that he says he is, he would not just be cutting spending, but changing how spending occurs. No matter that it’s the region’s top draw, how much bang for the buck are we getting from Zoo funding? HSBC employs a lot of workers, but $100K given to ten start up companies yields more dividends (in terms of jobs created and wealth maintained locally) than $1M given to HSBC. So keep the arts budget at $4M or $5M, but make it a competition. Which arts groups are ready to expand? Add a new space? Double the size of their program? Hire a new artistic director? On the cusp of breaking out? Invest the county’s money entrepreneurially, so you create the next Burchfield-Penney, not just maintain the old one. Help Shea’s absorb and retrofit the old Studio Arena Space. Give the Irish Classical Theater the resources it needs to double attendance in 5 years. And then move on. Don’t fund the same list every year. The IDA does not give money to GM or Kaleida simply for existing. It funds expansion and enhancement, and the county could do the same for the arts. “But art should exist for art’s sake, not just for tourism or tax revenue,” you say. I agree. I respect art for art’s sake  – when I was the ED of a small start-up arts center, we hosted a performance by a small choir that sings 500 year old chant. We received few attendees, but I was struck by the serenity of the choir members themselves; they were content that the music was alive, and the economic impact was so distant as to be forgotten. Such art should exist. But the county is not a foundation, nor the NEA, and could leverage its public dollars for maximum general impact.

20 Responses to “Bad Government, Worse Politics”

  1. Lefty October 5, 2010 at 3:28 pm #

    In order to have a vibrant arts community, you need a vibrant business community. It really is as simple as that. For reasons known, Buffalo does not have a vibrant business community.

    The same group of people who bitch about folks like Wilmers, fail to realize that people like Wilmers are the same folks who support the arts in other cities. Cities, where in the very least, their name is not run through the mud on a regular basis.

    Since WNYmedia loves to do video and has some new toys….I would love to see them hit the streets of Erie County and see if a random selection of folks from anywhere in the county could even name 5 of the more than 20 theater companies in Erie County. A follow up question would be how much they have personally donated to said theater companies and the like.

    Also, why the hell does everything have to be FREE? Saul Elkin said the loss of $81,000 to Shakespeare in Delaware Park would be “absolutely devastating” and that they are “the only affordable cultural event they can attend.”

    News flash to Elkin…FREE is not affordable. It is FREE. Affordable would be $2. So what if NYC has a free festival like Shakespeare in Delaware Park… Buffalo is NOT NYC.

    By the way, if Shakespeare in Delaware Park charged $2 per ticket, not only would that be affordable but based on the attendance figures provided by this group, it would cover the loss of money from the county. The site says more than 40,000 attend this event each year, which was lowered from a previously posted 50,000 figure.

    So…call Collins an Asshole but only a fool thinks that $2 is not affordable. Especially if some of the more well off folks give double that for this fine event.

  2. STEEL October 5, 2010 at 3:55 pm #

    Or why not do some real and meaningful examination of waste in local government and make real change that diverts waste into investment. 15% pay raises are outrageous in this economy. Why not make a stand on this crap? No one is getting any raises. If tehre is any time this could be stopped it is in this economy. Or how about this? Eire County does not need 29 school districts. It does not need a Village of Hamburg and a Township of Hamburg and a Village of Kenmore within the Town of Tonawanda. Do we really need a City of Lackawanna and a town of Blasdell. Does the county really need to be plowing roads for far flung towns? None of this excessive crap brings in any tourists and costs a lot of money with minimal if any return. Smart, growing cities invest in culturals as part of their strategy to grow. They don’t consider investments like these to be waste. They consider them to be “investments” in the quality of life. Ultimately governments are companies selling quality of life. Erie county’s plan is to put less cereal into a bigger box.

  3. Mike October 5, 2010 at 4:21 pm #

    The Greenway Comm doesn’t actually control the money — they merely approve projects for consistency with the Greenway ideals.

  4. Brian Castner October 5, 2010 at 4:30 pm #

    @ Mike: Yes, I know. If you read my link in that section, you’ll see I go through it there. . . and in every article I write on the Greenway. But since this article was already at 1600 words, and that concept wasn’t central to the theme, I skipped it.

    @ STEEL: God forbid we agree, but we do for your first few sentences. That being said, you need to leave the school districts out of it. Not that they shouldn’t be consolidated to save $$$, etc, but because they have nothing to do with county funding.

    @ lefty: In Buffalo, government substitutes for business, because we hardly know what real business looks like.

  5. STEEL October 5, 2010 at 4:57 pm #

    Well excessive school districts do have to do with county funding. Not directly so, but every level of wasteful and excessive government makes it that much more difficult to raise money for things that are really useful in any government. You can only tap people’s wallets for so much. If 20% goes to waste in the myriad of stupid overlapping governments that is 20% that could have been available to something more useful. The County Executive more than anyone else in local government has the bully pulpit to push these kinds of things. But instead the focus is on short term cuts that reduce the quality of life but do not reduce the tax burden.

    There is no one pushing real change that saves real money in a meaningful long term way.

  6. Lefty October 5, 2010 at 5:06 pm #

    @ Steel,

    Just what do you think would happen if Collins took a stand against the unions? Wait…we already know what would happen. Law suits. The only value these days of unions is to win more items. You simply can not start from scratch.

    If you think people got their panties in a bunch over funding for the arts, mostly programs the majority of people never use…just what reaction do you think would happen when peoples paychecks are on the line?

    Just as you point out that 29 school districts and plowing roads do not bring in tourist dollars…neither do the arts and culturals that were cut.

    Lastly, your comment that smart growing cities support arts and culturals is naive. Smart growing cities have private companies and sponsors that do most of the funding. There is a HUGE difference.

    Compare Erie County/Buffalo to Mecklenburg County/Charlotte.

    In Mecklenburg County/Charlotte, the total funding for arts and culturals was more than $14M. However, upon closer examination, $11.5 million of that is from the support of 40,000 donors, 600 corporations, and 1,300 volunteers. So government in that area is funding just $2.5 Million.

    In comparison, the Collins budget calls for $4,441,000 or 2x the funding found in Charlotte from the local government.

    Erie County is not putting less cereal into a bigger box. Erie County is simply using a smaller box. You know…because the region is shrinking, broke and not growing like other areas.

  7. Lefty October 5, 2010 at 5:18 pm #

    lawsuits not law suits…. derp

    While you, Brian and I may agree that consolidation would be a good thing…. In WNY, people have time and time again said they do not want consolidation. Sadly, people in WNY like excessive government. Probably because every.single.family has a husband/wife/brother/sister/cousin/parent/close friend employed by said excessive government.

    As Brain said, when government is THE business in the region, just who in the hell would want to vote to shrink that business?

    People who want to complain about the lack of funding for art and culturials need to move because what is needed to realistically support these has not been in Buffalo for a very long time and it is not coming back.

    But when they do move to such areas, they should also be prepared to live in an area where the power is held by business leaders not labor. Where elected officals are more concerned with keeping CEOs happy and not grassroots organizations. They should be prepared to drop the envy/hatred of wealth because that is the very hand that feeds these things.

  8. STEEL October 5, 2010 at 6:13 pm #

    Lefty,

    If the County Executive was on the news every night railing against 15% raises the public opinion would turn pretty quickly. But no one is doing that partly because politicians are in it for the power and the job rather than to make the government work better. And to keep your power and job you need the government unions. Few in the real world are getting any raises. I have not seen one in 2 years and my retirement account is on my dime. 15% is obscene in this economy especially on top of giant guaranteed pensions that public employees can claim at an early age.

    You said: “Just as you point out that 29 school districts and plowing roads do not bring in tourist dollars…neither do the arts and culturals that were cut:”

    It is not at all clear that the cut culturals do not bring in tourists. They do make the quality of life better and create the kind of cultural environment that attracts highly educated and self motivated people. On the flip side excessive government in the form of crazy numbers of school districts most certainly DO NOT attract intelligent motivated people as is proven every year in WNY and I am sure no one is coming from out of town to see Erie County’s wonderful snow plowing. So why not get rid of this stuff?

  9. Lefty October 5, 2010 at 6:38 pm #

    @ Steel,

    Collins has his job in spite of the unions, not because of them. Just look at the kickback from his call to hire “regular part-time” workers over full-timers. You are preaching to the choir in regards to raises/insurance and pensions. But that simply is a reality in Erie County.

    I agree 100% that culturals make the quality of life better but there simply is not enough money for Erie County to have as much “culture” as some would like.

    As for these things attracting highly educated and self motivated people, I disagree 100%. JOBS are what attract and retain highly educated and self motivated people. No recent graduate is going to move to Buffalo because of the ABK. Not when most cities have similar, if not better options.

    Also, as to your argument of schools, I disagree again. At least to an extent. The fact that someone has the option of Williamsville/Clarence type schools IS is a reason for them to locate in the region. If every school district performed like Lackawanna or Buffalo, most would NOT move to the region.

    The reality is, if you were to merge school districts, while saving money you would average out the results. No matter how much people what to talk about cost savings or equality, most parents simply do not fuck around and try social experiments when it comes to their kids education. At least those with common sense.

    Lastly, when it comes to wonderful snow plowing…ya that matters. Talk to a parent who needs to get to the store to buy milk 24 hours after a snow storm. You are going to get different feedback in comparing Amherst to Lovejoy.

  10. Brian Castner October 5, 2010 at 7:02 pm #

    Don’t let me interupt your conversation, but let me throw out a matter of degree. STEEL says people move to Buffalo for the culture, and lefty says people move for jobs, and you can get the Albright better somewhere else. I think you are both right. I have read enough stories of people being struck by the culture of Buffalo and actually moving here . . . a couple, anway. An artist here, an architect there. A retired person, and a telecommuter for flavor. Its small, but it exists. But they move for the Big One’s – they always list the same couple items: the parks, the Albright, maybe Shea’s, etc. They don’t mention obscure arts groups or fringe acts. So when Jeff Simon, in today’s paper, implied that people or businesses might move to Buffalo because of Theater of Youth, and that removing county funding would doom the group, thus stopping economic development, I had to laugh. TOY is great and all, but I think that’s wildly off the mark.

  11. Lefty October 5, 2010 at 7:59 pm #

    Jeff Simon is the arts guy for a city with an arts problem. It is just 100% ego. He might get a job as an intern in NY or Chicago.

  12. STEEL October 5, 2010 at 8:43 pm #

    I did not say they move to Buffalo for the culture.  They are attracted to the culture.  If I am biqig M&T banker guy that needs to attract a new bigwig from someplace else to fill a job I need these cultual assets to help seal the deal.  That is a fact.  Metro Buffalo has major negatives to overcome in this area.  If you can let the guy know that he is not going to be stranded in a backwater but tat in fact he can see a new play every week and a symphony concert and a hockey game and go to a world class art gallery one day and a highly respected experimental gallery the next – It makes a difference.  And guess what.  If the company can’t get the top notch people the company moves.

    As far as the AKG goes it is well regarded and is commonly thought of as world class in contemporary art.  Buffalo is very lucky to have it.

    As far as the snow plowing goes-that should be on the town’s ticket.

    Brian you were defending as worthy one of the most obscure organizations in the region so I am not sure what you are getting at with that line of discussion.

    As for the School thing.  The most successful regions in the country have consolidated schools.  The failing regions have multiple overlapping wasteful districts – case closed.  To argue that a shrinking failing region cannot afford to invest in quality of life but MUST keep failing overlapping wastfull government is nonsense talk

  13. Lefty October 5, 2010 at 9:17 pm #

    @ Steel.

    Suggesting that M&T needs the Alleyway Theater or the Irish Classical Theatre Company to seal the deal of a bigwig is downright silly. The “big” attractions got funded. Like I said before, I doubt you could find 10 average people who could name 25% of the groups that lost funding.

    If you want to talk about waste, why the hell is the ABK getting any funding at all? They sold off over $72 MILLION in assets just a couple of years ago. Yet they need $535,000 from a broke county?

    I recently was at the Met and enjoyed viewing the Artemis and the Stag, which was center stage in the Greek and Roman art collection. Yes, it is true, Buffalo had a 2000 year old work of art that is THE MOST EXPENSIVE SCULPTURE IN THE WORLD and sold it it to raise money for an organization that needs funding from the county.

    Fucking Nuts…I know. I mean who would want to come to Buffalo to see THE MOST EXPENSIVE SCULPTURE IN THE WORLD when they could see the Alleyway Theater or the Irish Classical Theatre Company?

    Yes, Buffalo is lucky to have the ABK, but it does not have to bribe it. They sold off some gems that belonged to the region and now people who mostly can not afford to go more than a couple times a year should support them. At the very least, the ABK could offer to take a lower amt for a while to help keep the other culturals in funding. That is if they think it is going to be worth it or give a damn about the rest of the region.

    The Science Museum, while a joke, got funded. I recently went with my nephew and thought it would take a couple of hours. After 75 minutes and looking at every.single.exhibit, we had to find other things to do.

    The region is poor and for various reasons can not afford to pretend it is NYC, Chicago or San Fran. Buffalo needs to shrink to a proper size and focus on having those elements be as best as possible.

    While Buffalo does have a lot of negatives, the 20 theater companies and FREE events in the park are not going to correct those. Here is a novel idea…how about fixing the actual problems?

    Let me throw out an idea that I am pretty sure could not be implemented. Shave $600k off the budgets for the 10 groups that got funded this year. Then match dollar for dollar any donations made to the various organizations that got funding cut until the $600k was spent. Any money that is left over, and there would be a lot, roll that money back into the big 10 next year. Rinse and repeat.

    This is the only way to prove that most people do not give a shit about most of the groups that lost funding but at the same time allows people to support 2-1 the groups they do enjoy.

  14. Brian Castner October 5, 2010 at 9:18 pm #

    @ STEEL: I’m not sure how much of the discussion you want to have over again. Simon implied people would move to Buffalo for TOY. I disagree. I don’t think people would move to Buffalo for Penn Dixie either. As I stated, the people that move here for the culture are few, but they exist. I agree with you – most companies and people just want to know they aren’t moving to a cultural wasteland. I defended Penn Dixie with Alan on a previous post because it does bring tourists from outside the area, strange as that may seem. Collins wants to fund tourist orgs, and he does with Penn Dixie. Some people like boats, some like FLW, and some like fossils. He is also only giving them $41K, so I think that is all much ado about nothing. Of course, I can’t believe we’re fighting over $600K, but that’s the point of my article.

  15. Ray Walter October 5, 2010 at 11:28 pm #

    @ Brian – Great post. In your comments you keep mentioning the few people who move here because of the cultural attractions. Really? Despite having 20 theater companies, one of the world’s best modern art gallery in the AKAG and a multitude of other cultural organizations that are indispensable according to people like Simon and Dabkowski this region is bleeding population. Apparently the 60,000 people who left Erie County over the last 20 years didn’t get the memo about the wonderful cultural attractions they get for the highest taxes in the country.

  16. STEEL October 6, 2010 at 12:03 am #

    I am not commenting on Simon.  I am saying that the aggregate of these cultural oganizatoin make the WNY product more valuable.  Colins is making his decisions on a narrow band of criteria which is short sighted in my opinion.  If he goal is to fund things that bring in tourists perhpas there are other things which should not be funded by the county.  

    The Artimis is not by a long shot the moste expensive piece of art in the world which is someplace in the 100s of millions.  The artimis sold I think for less than $30M.  The most expensive sculpture ever sold was for about $104,000,000.  Soon after the artimis salet here were questions raised about its authenticity.  The museum netted about 5 times more than expected from their auctions puttingt the museum endowment much more in line with other top tier museums. I think it was a very smart move and will assure the muesum’s top tier status for many years.

  17. Brian Castner October 6, 2010 at 9:17 am #

    @ Ray: I know people move here for the culture because EVERY SINGLE ONE THAT DOES gets its own story in the Buffalo News. So the actual numbers are 4 in, 60,004 out. See, its helping!

  18. Lefty October 7, 2010 at 11:34 am #

    Anyone want to talk about NYS giving the culturals the shaft?

    http://www.buffalonews.com/city/communities/erie-county/article213085.ece

    Arts education advocates are decrying the State Council on the Arts’ recent decision to slash funding to local educational arts groups by 69 percent. Similar programs in New York City, they said, were cut by less than 1 percent.

    HMMMMM….expecting silence…

  19. Brian Castner October 7, 2010 at 1:26 pm #

    Who do you expect to talk about it, and who do you expect silence from?

  20. Lefty October 7, 2010 at 2:08 pm #

    The people who are calling Collins out for cutting the budget. When Chris Collins takes away money from the arts, he is a [insult related to being a Republican/dictator], however, when the State Council on the Arts takes money from the arts…not much is said.

    Collins is dealing with a broken and broke county. He made a numbers decision. We debated the merits of that numbers decision. The State Council on the Arts simply said FUCK OFF to WNY. That is worse IMO.

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