True Budget Woes

9 Dec

It seems particularly appropriate that during our collective hyperventilating over chump change in the Erie County budget that we should seek a comparative example to show what true austerity and funding cuts look like. Welcome back to Colorado Springs, a city I last profiled in my Grass is Not Always Greener series almost six months ago.

To review, Colorado Springs is growing a rapid clip thanks to massive federal investment, high tech jobs, and a multitude of displaced Californians. Despite the tax revenue benefits associated with significant increased growth, Colorado Springs has found itself in one of the worst financial situations in the country. When Erie County Chris Collins wishes to not raise taxes, he cuts a couple hundred grand to local theaters. In Colorado Springs, the city parks budget is cut from $20 million to $3 million. And that is just the start.

Community centers and museums were shuttered and youth programs canceled. Firefighter and police positions were eliminated. The two police helicopters were auctioned for $158,000 each. One of every three streetlights was turned off. Bus service was cut for evenings and weekends. All street repaving was canceled. Park restrooms were closed, and city trash cans were replaced by signs asking citizens to take their trash home with them. Community groups and the US Olympic Committee (HQ’d in the Springs) stepped in to privately fund some cut programs. But far from all. In the latest bid, the city is looking to sell its healthcare system to an out of town company. Think Strong Memorial buying ECMC.

How can Colorado Springs be in such dire straits? PFM did an analysis that Colorado Springs collects $402 in tax revenue per capita from its residents, far below the national average. Denver collects $1008. In comparison, in Erie County we spend $1100 per capita on Medicaid alone. The tax structures are almost incomparable. Of course, so are the budget woes.  

The upcoming year looks a bit brighter, so the city council is expecting to add back in previously cut programs. First on the list: streetlights.  If Buffalo couldn’t afford its electric bill, we’d consider ourselves a national laughing stock, and for good reason.

The Erie County budget rhetoric will continue. Maria Whyte breathlessly proclaimed that funding to smaller culturals is self-evidently justified because it is an investment in the community. Such black and white logic begs for two rhetorical conclusions: we should cut funding to everything not an investment, and ignore fiscal restraints on other such opportunities. I look forward to Legislator Whyte’s recommended cuts to Medicaid (prolonging the life of the poor is merely a drain on resources – hardly an investment) and a $100 million renewable energy infrastructure plan for the county. It is an investment, after all.

If, on the other hand, you recognize that budgeting requires funding some things you’d rather not, and not investing in everything deserving of public dollars, then be thankful we are arguing over hundreds of thousands for theaters, and not millions for lights and cops.

10 Responses to “True Budget Woes”

  1. peteherr December 9, 2010 at 11:14 am #

    Brian – While I agree with you that desperate times call for desperate measures, and I support a belt tightening in Erie County and Buffalo and even Lancaster for that matter. My problem isn’t with cutting funding. My problem is how the funding was cut. My problem is in the disbanding of the non-political entity that is designed to make recommendations about cultural funding. My problem is with the Collins Administration simply deciding who should get funding and then cutting off the funding completely to the others with no warning. My problem is with the Collins Administration choosing organizations to fund that are clearly chosen because they are pet projects of his friends and political supporters. My problem is with the Collins Administration ignoring an overridden veto last year and doing it his way regardless. That isn’t democracy, that is dictatorship.

    I have no problem, by the way, with cuts. If Collins wanted to cut the cultural funding, what is wrong with saying “we will be cutting 10% of the funding, everyone shares that 10% cut” (By the way, when the Deomcrats in the legislature restored funding, I think they should have done the same thing) Collins is a my way or the highway kind of guy. That isn’t leadership.

  2. Brian Castner December 9, 2010 at 11:49 am #

    @ Pete – Where you see a dictator I see a feckless legislature and a county charter that provides for a strong executive. These cuts were hardly a surprise – Collins had asked culturals for two years to consider county funding the last dollar in the door. Collins has his pet projects and supporters, and so does the other side. I like your 10% (or 20% funding cut) idea, but notice the silence from the Zoo, AKAG, etc on that. None of them offered a shared pain plan. That would cultural leadership to me. Instead, we have two “my way or the highway” head butting groups, but only Collins has any power. I think most on the cultural side are not pissed Collins is a dictator, just envious.

  3. lefty December 9, 2010 at 1:18 pm #

    The fact that the AKAG took in almost $76.5M recently in a sale, yet somehow ‘needs’ the county to pitch in $535,000 is absurd.

    I also find it amusing that almost every one of these small groups have a large staff and the title of “Executive Director” is thrown around like Assistant TO THE Regional Manager but with a nice pay grade.

    If keeping the arts was really the goal…why not try and merge some of the administration of the Culturals under 3-5 high quality executives and use lower paying support staffs to deal with the day-to-day? The reason is the people backing the ‘arts’ are not really backing the arts but rather backing the ‘arts industry’ or the ‘non-profit’ industry of WNY.

    It is not about enriching the community but rather keeping a portion of the community employed.

  4. peteherr December 9, 2010 at 1:24 pm #

    @Brian – I am of the Alan Bedenko School of Dissolving the County Altogether (ABSDCA). I agree that the legislature is feckless. My point on Collins is that he agreed when he ran for office to play by a certain set of rules. When he breaks those rules and then the Legislature has to sue, he is not doing his job. In fact, he is doing the opposite of his job, as he is costing us money in the form of needless lawsuits. He used his veto last year on the cultural funding issue and it was overridden, yet he still refuse to obide by that. Pretty sure the County Charter doesn’t say that he can veto and that is the end of the process.

    I am a fan of funding the culturals, not because I love everything they all do. I am a fan because they return money to the economy. Even the lowest of the estimates I have heard ($1.70 for each dollar spent) is an economic stimulus. People don’t pay for Shakespeare in the Park, but they do go to Wegmans and buy things to pack their cooler with….money into the economy AND sales tax revenue. My brother and I have the same argument about the Bills. We have or attend parties on Sundays whether the Bills are home or away. I wouldn’t be buying the several pounds of Mineo & Sapio and all the other junk food and drinks if it was just me sitting around watching the game by myself. Culturals return money, some of it money from outside WNY. The Film Commission brought outside money into town. The CVB brings outside money into town. I don’t understand why we cut the areas that stimulate the economy and thus generate sales tax. Seems a little “cut off our noses to spite our face” to me.

  5. peteherr December 9, 2010 at 1:30 pm #

    @lefty – You talk about it like there is this huge group of culturals with a huge top heavy management structure. Wasn’t the total number of culturals that were funded by the county in the 40 range? There’s more Tim Hortons than that locally.

  6. lefty December 9, 2010 at 2:08 pm #

    @Peteherr

    The 30 culturals that were to be cut all excessive layers of management IMO, if you consider what they do and the community they are in.

    For example, the Buffalo Inner City Ballet, Ballet Artists of Western New York, Irish Classical Theatre, MusicalFare Theatre, Shakespeare in Delaware Park, Ujima Theatre and Lancaster Opera House could all be classified as performance art.

    Each of these groups has an ‘Executive Director’ and a support staff. There is no doubt in my mind there is waste in that ‘management’ structure. Why not merge all of these groups under one umbrella and have a single Executive Director, Fundraising Coordinator and administrative staff? Doing so would allow for so much more of the money to actually go to providing the performance than running the business.

    You could also open up some cross selling options. For example, you could purchase a ‘seasons pass’ to these 6 groups..which would introduce people to the various performances. For events that are FREE, which is pathetic all things considered, you could provide preferred seating or a hosted happy hour before the performance.

    As for the number…40 does seem a lot for a community that is only 1m people and shrinking. But that is just an opinion. While there are many more Tim Hortons…more people purchase product from Tim Hortons and they do not take money from the public.

    Also to note…people like Tim Hortons more than they like the arts in Buffalo. If you took the amount of money spent on coffee and doughnuts and applied it to the arts…Erie County would not have to fund a thing. That is the reality of the community. Embrace it or leave.

    Like I said before…if the real goal was to keep the arts going…everything outside of the actual performance or experience would be looked at first. I have yet to see any ideas from the groups who are set to lose funding on how they could be more efficient.

  7. peteherr December 10, 2010 at 1:05 pm #

    @lefty – Are you firmly entrenched in the Arts community in WNY that you would be privy to the info about what culturals are doing to try and survive? I’m pretty sure that the organizations you are talking about won’t send out press releases about lowering the heat, or laying off the secretary. Also, I think, unless you have worked in the arts, your assumption that the management structure is heavy is just that, an assumption. Every group needs a boss, and who cares if they call it an Executive Director….that is what you call the head of group that isn’t a big corporation and calling their leader a CEO. I also know from working in the WNY Arts community, the people at the top of those organizations that you named by name aren’t getting rich working there. Some heads of national charities locally are making big bucks, but I’m guessing the head of the Buffalo Inner City Ballet isn’t making a killing.

    Your idea of collaboration, cross marketing/sponsorship and season passes is a great idea, but merging the entities might not work as the different organizations have different missions and different needs.

    I also want to point out that while I have a degree in Theater, have worked in the WNY professional theater community and continue to work in a position where I have to manage a performing arts program, I am no expert on running a NPO. My point in my response was less about what the arts need to do, and more about the lousy approach to the cultural sector of WNY that King Christopher has taken.

  8. lefty December 10, 2010 at 3:06 pm #

    @ Pete

    While I have not worked in the arts, I have done extensive work with non-profits. I can not count how many times I have seen waste in non-profits. My feelings are that the main reason for waste is simply because non-profits spend others money..not their own.

    For example, I did web development work for a non-profit for 3 years. Our relationship started because another web provider was charging them an outrageous amount to make basic edits. Three years ago we put their website on a content management system so they could make these edits on their own. We put them on WordPress, which is the same CMS that WNYmedia runs on. Ask Brian how difficult it is to use…it is not.

    That project was ~$1500. Over the course of 3 years the staff at this non-profit refused to do a training session and simply sent over edit requests. While these requests took 5-10min each…over the course of 3 years they added up to about $6,000. This is after a 40% discount. Every.single.edit could have been done by the client.

    The irony of it all is these edits were mostly for fund raising. Shared at a meeting, I was informed that that the website generated $22,000 in donations over that same timeframe. So ya..simple math was almost 30% of the money raised went to cover edits they could have done.

    Comparing this to business owners that I work with…100% of the time..every time..the business owner would do these things on their own. In fact, my business is booming right now as business owners are left and right migrating their sites to content management systems so they can remove the extra costs of edits. The reason is…it is THEIR money.

    What I also know from being an event chair for some events is this…

    Fund raising is an exhausting task. The time spent to do an event takes a lot out of a non-profit. You also have to look at the ROI for an event. If you are spending .30 to make a dollar…that is great.

    Since each of these groups mostly likely do their own fund raising..effort is wasted. The time it takes to do a large event of 500 people is not 5 times the amount of work than an event for 100 people. There could be tremendous savings by eliminating the overlap.

    Also to this point, the better the event, the higher the donations. So a smaller group could not do an event at Shea’s and bring in a great act to headline. However, 6 small groups combined could do a gala with a big headliner and bring in more money with a fraction more work.

    I also know that non-profits pay things like benefits, which at times equal 10%-30% of an overall compensation. Under a merger, these costs as well as salaries could be lowered. After all it is more cost effective to have a single executive director being paid $100k + benefits than 6 executive directors at $25K + benefits. Additional to that…non-profits are all about your network. The better the executive director..the better the network…which equals more production.

    While the director of the Buffalo Inner City Ballet is not making a killing…he is making a living. Which was my point. The complaints are not about losing the arts but about the jobs that go into the arts. If people like yourself were honest about this…that would be a start.

    Lastly, while I can appreciate your degree in the arts…it has little to do with running a business. Which is what these groups really are. Regardless of if they are for-profit or not for profit..they are a business.

    Understand 14th century art or modern dance has little effect on managing books, HR, fund raising or employee management. In fact, I think it is a safe assumption that people in the arts usually do not do well in this arena.

    So when a group asks for public money to run their group…at the very least they should be run as efficiently as possible. This is why as groups grow…they usually bring on experience executive directors to manage the day to day. Something a lot of these groups have not done.

  9. peteherr December 10, 2010 at 4:41 pm #

    @Lefty – I do run a business, a similiar business to you as I have been a web designer for years. I admittedly do lower end stuff, not a lot of Flash or database integration and I have multiple business owners that can’t be bothered with doing simple edits themselves and would rather pay me to do it.

    And as I said, I agree that a collaboratiob between the arts organizations would be good. Whether it is a good idea or not, you can’t force a merger of different groups. It’s like saying that Make A Wish and the American Heart Association both raise money, so they should merge. Like I said, they have diffferent needs and different missions. My wife worked for Make-A-Wish for several years and they were far from bloated. There was a paid staff of about 5.

    And again…this isn’t about anything more than the style of the cuts.

  10. lefty December 10, 2010 at 7:28 pm #

    @Peter

    I disagree with your logic. Make A Wish and the American Heart Association are big enough to stand on their own. We are talking about organizations that claim without public money they will likely have to close.

    While each group would have a different mission, there are lots of overlap. An Executive Director does not have to be a thespian to be a great director for a dance company. They just have to be a great executive. Same for a fund raising specialist. The ones I personally know are contract workers and they work with anyone. You get the point.

    Each group could still have its own mission and act independently of the other groups but the top level business aspects could and should be consolidated. In other words an artistic director for each group would work with a single Executive Director, CFO, HR for all groups.

    Going back to what Brian wrote…not one of the bigger culturals have offered a shared pain plan. Not one of the culturals with cuts on the line have come out and said how they could improve their cash flow. They simply are playing a very public game of chicken.

    I know a lot of people want to kid themselves into thinking that Buffalo is this major city and a cultural giant…it is not. To fund 40 groups because 40 groups got funding last year is not practical and something that possibly the region can not afford.

    But the idea of fund us or we protest is BS. They are asking for money. It is NOT an entitlement. They need to come up with some solutions or at least try to be a part of the solution.

    We both agree on collaboration, cross marketing/sponsorship and season passes…a pretty simple concept. So why has it not been implemented? Why has it not been mentioned?

    All to often ideas are shared on blogs and message boards but they are never implemented. I feel the reason is the leadership is more concerned with protecting their fiefdoms than actually solving the problem. Control over result.

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