Depoliticize the Mundane

22 Dec

That deal whereby Chris Collins would dip into $100,000 of his own personal federal stimulus rainy day fund, and local foundations would pony up another $400,000 to fund the tertiary tier of cultural groups, died yesterday after a short illness.  It was one week old.

It is survived by Robert Gioia’s Oishei foundation’s decision to spend $400,000 on the culturals through the Fund for the Arts, which was set up during the last, genuine county budget crisis (as opposed to the thoroughly manufactured and non-existent one that is taking place now).

To:      Chris Collins, Erie County Executive,
Barbara Miller-Williams, Chair, Erie County Legislature
Clotilde Dedecker, Convener, Fund for the Arts
From:  Jim Wadsworth, Chair, The John R. Oishei Foundation
Robert Gioia, President, The John R. Oishei Foundation
Re:      Offer of Cooperative Assistance to Cultural Organizations
Date:  December 21, 2010

Because of the astounding amount of responses, misunderstanding, and apparent “unintended consequences” related to the Oishei Foundation’s offer to raise $400,000 to match a county contribution of $100,000, we have decided to revise our strategy and work directly with the cultural organizations through the Fund for the Arts. Whatever funds we are able to raise will be provided to them through the process established by the Fund for the Arts.

It is our strong hope that efforts to provide support to the critical ‘second-tier’ cultural organizations, as well as the Library, will continue in earnest by those legislators who believe in their importance. If the legislature or the executive wishes to participate in the Fund for the Arts with a financial contribution to the Fund, it will be welcome; however, it will only be accepted without any conditions beyond a requirement to report on how it was distributed.

The Fund for the Arts was begun in response to a similar legislative budgetary disaster in 2005, when many of the same organizations were similarly caught in a political struggle. Since it was begun, nine foundations – all with differing funding processes and philosophies – have managed to agree to distribute over $1 million in pooled funds to these groups for general operating support and for technical assistance and training programs. We will continue to work toward strengthening the arts and cultural sector.

The Oishei Foundation has been a major contributor to the Fund for the Arts, and in addition to that effort, has made major contributions to such organizations as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Roycroft Campus, Darwin Martin House, Buffalo Philharmonic, and many others. We will continue to do so. However, we have concluded that working with the leadership of the legislature and the administration of the county on this effort is doing more harm than good in a number of ways.

We are announcing this action to the public via press release today.

Democratic lawmakers subjected Gioia to a bit of a grilling on Monday – Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams in particular.  Two weeks ago, she had been trying to craft a compromise package with Collins’ input.  That effort ultimately failed.  When Collins vetoed 154 budget line items, there weren’t enough votes to override any of them because the Republican lawmakers had rode in as saviors of the tertiary tier of culturals with this $100k for $400k deal with the foundations.

Miller-Williams and other Democrats questioned the timing of this deal, because it made them look bad and dealt the Republicans a bit of an “everyone wins”  victory.  Evidently, Gioia had proposed this very solution to Collins weeks ago, and Collins brushed him aside.  Republican lawmakers got wind of it on the day of the veto override and revived it without notifying the Democratic majority, going so far as to bar them from attending their press conference on the issue.

So now the legislature is concerned that it won’t have any input over which groups get the money.  It’s classic scrambling, because the doling out of public money equates with power in this town.  After all, just about everyone’s got a hand out.  Some of the grilling of Gioia seemed petty and pointless.

So, Gioia took his ball and went home.

The Republican legislators reacted,

The Republican Caucus was disappointed in learning that Robert Gioia and the Oishei Foundation have withdrawn its offer to support cultural organizations through a public-private partnership with Erie County. The announcement came one day after the Legislature’s Community Enrichment Committee met and criticized the foundation’s generous offer and how it was made.  The Caucus thanks Mr. Gioia for his offer to help County cultural organizations and for his continued support for the region. This public-private partnership was an exemplary plan, one that the Republican Caucus strongly supported.

Well, what the committee really criticized was the political way in which this political deal came about politically and the fact that there was no plan for distributing the money, and no guarantee that the affected culturals would all receive funding.

Late yesterday, Miller-Williams released this statement,

I have received the Memorandum from Mr. Jim Wadsworth and Mr. Robert Gioia of the John R. Oishei Foundation this afternoon.  Since then I have reached out to Minority Leader John Mills and Majority Leader Maria Whyte regarding this matter. In addition, I have notified all Legislative Colleagues regarding the content of the Memorandum.  Collectively, with the County Executive’s Office, we are seeking to find a solution that will benefit the residents of Erie County and provide needed financial support to the noted Arts and Cultural Organizations.

It’s time to depoliticize the mundane. The legislature has been helping to fund regional cultural organizations for years, because the public wants them to exist and survive.  The arts and the libraries are what differentiate us from cavemen, and no civilization can exist without them.  These very groups are what people point to when explaining why it’s tolerable to live in this windswept, surface-parking-laden tundra.  The arts rely – and have always relied – on benefactors.  Whether it be private commissions, philanthropic generosity, or public money, society has made a value judgment that the arts are worth supporting because it helps to lift up the whole region. Seldom do artistic entities rely solely on ticket sales or operating “like a business”.  Because they’re not businesses.  They’re artistic and cultural nonprofit organizations. Whether you go to them or not, they help to attract businesses and people.  And their money.

In the old days, there was a nonpartisan board that would make recommendations to the county government as to which organizations should get how much.  Collins did away with that “ECCRAB” board because it meant he couldn’t  micromanage things and hyper-politicize the process.  Instead of a transparent application process, it became a Collins-driven mess.

This battle royal over what amounts to peanuts in a $1BN+ budget is a ridiculous annual tradition that serves no one.  It only benefits the press, politicians who like to see their names in print, and snarky bloggers who need dumb crap about which to write.  The culturals are ill-served, the public is ill-served, and the political process is further cheapened.

And we’re not even talking about the Comptroller’s office and the cuts thereto.  We don’t have the wherewithal to rationally debate these things because Collins isn’t interested in democracy or debate.  He is the law.  Le comte, c’est lui.

So, Gioia told the legislature to go and get its shinebox, and Collins has indirectly succeeded in removing the funding of the tertiary cultural tier from the county government’s purview altogether.

For now.

Because Gioia’s deal is a one-shot solution to a longstanding problem, and we’ll be right back in the same spot next year, arguing over the same peanuts.  Hopefully, however, we’ll have just elected a new County Executive who believes himself or herself to be accountable to the people.

In the meantime, a beleaguered place is further shamed by shameful things done by shameless people.

[UPDATED to fix some language and add some thoughts]

21 Responses to “Depoliticize the Mundane”

  1. Tom Dolina December 22, 2010 at 7:23 am #

    *”Le comte, c’est lui.” translates to “He is the County”. A take on a phrase attributed to (perhaps erroneously) to King Louis XIV (“l’etat, c’est moi”: “I am the State”, not to be confused by the 1990’s MTV sketch show “The State” which gave rise to such comedians as Michael Ian Black and Thomas Lennon, of which many of the featured cast went off to varying degrees of success in other comedy shows such as Viva Variety, Reno 911!, and Stella). In Alan’s context, he is asserting that Erie County Executive Chris Collins believes he is the sole dictator of how the county should be run.
    Brought to you by Footnote, WNYMedia’s new mascot of references!

  2. Michael December 22, 2010 at 7:25 am #

    It’s beyond troubling. Quality of life stuff often acts as a valuable recruitment tool to bring folks to town. Schools, theaters, community happenings like “Shakespeare in the Park” help the region’s portfolio in keeping people here and getting others to come.It would be good if all these folks could keep their eyes on the overall prize, but apparently that is asking too much.

  3. Mike In WNY December 22, 2010 at 8:42 am #

    The legislature has been helping to fund regional cultural organizations for years because the public wants them to exist and survive. The arts and the libraries are what differentiate ourselves from cavemen, and no civilization can exist without them.

    That is a pretty sad argument for continuing the funding. Taxes and spending have been rising for years, should we continue that too? Wanting culturals to survive is exclusive from the government funding them. What people want are less spending and less taxes and more money in their own pockets. Then, with that money, people can support the cultural groups they want.

    The 5 year financial outlook for the County is bleak, if spending cuts are not enacted now, it will be even worse. Current federal and state monies flowing to the county are temporary at best.

  4. Hank December 22, 2010 at 9:33 am #

    Though I agree with Alan in that Libraries and Culturals are what seperate us from the rest of the animals on the planet, The idea that Government should pay for ANY of it is folly.

    Public Libraries, just like Public Schools, rose from the fact that the larger collections of books, and many of the schools, were in the hands of the Catholic Church—both in the Old World and the new. Those who lived then that would today be classified as Liberals feared that the Papists would control education and what books would be available for the public to read. Since Liberals despise religion and it’s practice, especially Catholics, in the US the move to establish Public Libraries and Schools has carried on since before the inception of the country.

    BUT ONCE AGAIN—-The first public Libraries, and the funding for the first public schools WERE NOT THE PRODUCT OF GOVERNMENT. It was Bobbycat’s envy people, the millionaires and billionaires, that funded culturals and libraries. Its’ great to have a public library system for the people, wouldn’t it be great if they were endowed or supported by wealthy individuals in the community, and also by Corporations, the replacement for the Vanderbilts, Astors and Carnegies of the world? Our Art Gallery is not the Erie County Art Gallery, it’s ALBRIGHT/KNOX—-two families of OLD BUFFALO MONEY.
    Instead of giving “Tax breaks to the Rich”—persuade the “millionaires and billionaires” to intstead endow culturals and the library system, and increase the percentage of write offs. That way Joe Biden types (who donates less than 1000/yr to charity) can still use other peoples money to fund the projects important to Liberals, but it won’t be coming from Joe Six Pack the Taxpayer.

  5. Alan Bedenko December 22, 2010 at 9:37 am #

    County taxes have hardly budged for years, and represents a miniscule portion of the average WNYer’s tax burden. The bulk of your tax burden is assessed by the towns and school districts, on top of the county share of the sales tax. County property taxes are about $5.00 for every $1000 of assessed value – among the lowest in New York. The sales tax hasn’t gone up since the last budget crisis.

  6. Mike In WNY December 22, 2010 at 9:56 am #

    The sales tax is too high!

  7. MJC December 22, 2010 at 9:58 am #

    There are an awful lot of people arguing that the culturals should be discontinued under the unproven premise that “we simply can’t afford them anymore”.

    Whether that is true or not, I wonder how many of these same people support the massive subsidy the Buffalo Bills enjoy?

    Also, if we want to save the culturals we should stop referring to them as “culturals”. The word screams “liberal elitist pastime” and invokes images of activities that the typical working class Joe (who really thinks that cutting these will lead to a massive tax break) cannot get behind.

  8. Ray Walter December 22, 2010 at 10:42 am #

    If the County is going to continue to fund “culturals” then the process needs to be overhauled. Collins picking his top 10 is no more arbitrary than the Democrats in the Legislature throwing anoth 40 groups in the mix at verying funding levels. This fantasy of a “nonpartisan board” that was so much better is not based on fact. Yes there was an ECCRAB board that was appointed entirely by the County Executive (Gorski, Giambra, Collins) but it served at the pleasure of the CE and was solely accountable to the CE. A look through the budget books of years past shows that the process was no less political. After ECCRAB / CE recomendations in the budget the Legislature inevitably added organizations and money as they saw fit with no input from any “nonpartisan board”. I know our collective memory only goes back as far as the evil Collins administration but this cultural funding battle waged year after year, (which only adds to the absurdity of it all I know). An independent re-granting organization is the practical solution. The CE can then recommend the $$$ and the Legislature can increase or decrease that recomendation. The argument over who gets what can take place among people who have a little more expertise in this area. Good luck getting my colleagues to agree to giving up this power, we just saw what happens when they are asked to give up a little control. The other issue is creating a qualified re-granting organization, look no further than the arts council to see what happened to the last one. Sorry I can’t make paragraphs and Merry Christmas.

  9. FactsPlz December 22, 2010 at 12:29 pm #

    If we are going to fund “culturals” then identify a dedicated source of funding. Add a 25 or 50 cent surcharge to Bills’ tickets. That way we can offset the decadent subsidy given to “duhBills”.

  10. peteherr December 22, 2010 at 12:46 pm #

    Hank, I think you missed a couple of stereotypes. I, BTW, am both Catholic and liberal.

    Ray – So why couldn’t we have taken 10% off the top and shared the pain all the way down the cultural food chain? And why can’t the Legistors get together and agree to making the said overhaul of the funding model? I think they just need a leader who is willing to make it important and put together bi-partisan support for it. Know anyone in the Legislature who could be that leader?

  11. Ray Walter December 22, 2010 at 3:53 pm #

    Pete – 10% off of the top and sharing the pain all the way down is exactly what should have been done, instead $1.2 million in addittional funding was proposed by the majority. Not much compromise in those numbers. We’ll see what happens regarding your other questions, but people have to want to work together, I have seen little evidence of that over the last two years.

  12. eliz December 22, 2010 at 8:42 pm #

    ECCRAB was not perfect but it made way better sense than any of this. At least the smaller groups got their money then. And the application process was good for them. They had to demonstrate in triplicate that they provided certain services and they were rewarded with a small grant that helped them raise money in other ways.

  13. Hapklein December 23, 2010 at 6:58 am #

    I think that it is historically, and socially justified for government to support the arts. There is no time in history reaching back to ancient Greece that any special culture or expression is not woven into the fabric of all society.The arts provide a richness to the tapestry of our culture.
    I rather think that many conservatives are horrified by the failure of many forms and manifestation of art and believe a more efficient support would be from outside government. but we do not do much better with our various economic and political experimentsImagine, without government support or involvement we may never have known of Michelangelo, Goethe, Tolstoi,  Shakespeare or for a stretch, Einstein who finished his thesis working as a government clerk.The preservation of libraries is neither European or Catholic. While it is true the Irish Catholic Monks preserved most of the culture of Europe from the Fall of Rome to the Renaissance it was the secular forces fostered by Ben Franklin that intiated and developed “social Libraries,” in America.From his founding of the initial library in Philadelphia forward this nation recognized the need for social betterment through information and our public libraries became the world model.Anyone that doubts the development of information is the key to any success by any nation and its people should not participate in these discussions

  14. BobbyCat December 23, 2010 at 1:01 pm #

    Hap, where did you learn all this stuff?

  15. Hapklein December 23, 2010 at 2:46 pm #

    You read and never watch the Boobtube.
    A lot of the role of the irish is in a very interesting book, “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” It is incredible tale of how a frail band maintained western culture from about 900 to about 1400. The isolation of the monks did not hurt either.
    Monasteries are like parks they are generally built in areas that cannot be used for any other purpose. So they mostly were never raided or sacked.
    Thus we have the Iliad and the Odyssey.

  16. Hank December 23, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

    I’ve sent Pete an e-mail. Liberals who state they are Catholic have to be careful.
    If you support or condone abortion, artificial birth control, homosexuality, fornication, you may SAY you’re a Catholic, but you’re really not. What you are is in a state of grave sin.

    How many “pro abortion Catholics” are there in Libbie Land?

    • Alan Bedenko December 24, 2010 at 6:33 am #

      Yes, the magical man in the sky or the mystical wizard in hat and robes – the one who magically turns wine into blood and crackers into flesh in order to symbolically recreate a cannibalistic ritual, and oftentimes helps to cover up pedophilia among his peers – may kick you out of their special club if you use a condom or use the pill. Even if you’re married! It’s fun to believe in things people concocted in their heads before science came about!

      Merry Christmas! Now excuse me while I try to figure out a way to turn this hunk of iron into gold.

  17. BobbyCat December 23, 2010 at 8:29 pm #

    Hank, I passed you the other day while you were trudging through the snow in your Santa suit with your sign “REPENT YOU SINNERS”.

    I beeped,

    and waived.

    and …

    (give it a rest)

  18. jhorn December 24, 2010 at 2:12 am #

    hank- “How many “pro abortion Catholics” are there in Libbie Land?” Don’t know, we’ll have to ask scooter. Catholic support for birth control hovers between 80-90% in the US. That’s a lot of people that would be headed for hell if it existed. If you’re interested- a funny, poignant, tolerant fictional look at the catholic birth control issue: David Lodge’s “Souls and Bodies”.

  19. Brian December 26, 2010 at 6:06 am #

    Without culturals, we’re a chilly Timbuktu, just doing the quotidian eat, sleep, work, screw, like our paleolithic dads, and even they supported the dance and music.


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