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.
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.
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]