Tag Archives: culturals

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]

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.

BPO Under the Gun

30 Apr

The County Legislature’s Community Enrichment Committee met today, where County Executive Chris Collins and his commissioner, Holly Sinnott, were not treated to a particularly warm and cozy set of questions. The meeting ran an hour longer than scheduled.

At one point during the meeting a question was raised about 2009 arts/cultural contracts with the county that Collins’ office had sent to the county comptroller’s office for checks to be issued. The comptroller’s office had received one such item, received very late in the day yesterday. It was for the BPO in the amount of $407,000. If the check was not issued by tomorrow, the BPO would not make payroll.

And they say government or the arts has no stimulative effect on the economy.