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Next story: Buffalo and its Discontents

Scissor Happy

Chris Collins mounts a reckless assault on the region's cultural institutions

By now, the news is everywhere. After the usual boom of arts-related activity precipitated by Curtain Up! and the opening weekend of Beyond/In Western New York, something strange happened: In light of the masses of people gathered in the streets and in galleries to take in art, music, and theater, Erie County Executive Chris Collins announced that none of this activity was worth investing in.

Last week, Collins presented his 2011 budget to the Erie County Legislature. Just 10 cultural organizations, rather than last year’s 43, were allotted funding by the county. This leaves 33 not-for-profit organizations out in the cold, uncertain whether they can continue programming.

The announcement was a shock to the cultural community. Around the beginning of August, theaters and galleries started to receive a form letter from Gregory Gach, director of budget and management for the county, which told them to begin planning for cuts in funding. The letter began with stark news about the county budget:

Collins's Proposed Cultural Funding

Zoological Society of Buffalo$1,465,000
Buffalo Museum of Science$905,000
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra$825,000
Albright-Knox Art Gallery$535,000
Buffalo & E.C. Historical Society$385,000
Darwin Martin House$140,000
Burchfield Penney Art Center$92,000
Hamburg Natural History Museum$41,000
Graycliff Conservancy$32,000
Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site$21,000
Total: $4,441,000

Among these left out: Alleyway Theatre, Arts in Education Institute of WNY, Neglia Ballet, Big Orbity Gallery, CEPA Gallery, Community Music School of Buffalo, El Museo Gallery, Explore and More, Folkloric Dance, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, Irish Classical Theater, Just Buffalo Literary Center, Kavinoky Theater, Lancaster Opera House, Locust Street Neighborhood Art Classes, Music Is Art, Musicalfare Theater, New Phoenix Theater, Pierce Arrow Museum, Polish Arts Club of Buffalo, Road less Traveled Prodcutions, Shakespeare in Delaware Park, Springville Center for the Arts, Squeaky Wheel, Theater of Youth, Ujima Theater Company, Western New York Artists Group, Young Audiences of Western New York.

As I write this letter, the County’s budget shortfall stands at $36 million and the County Executive is committed to closing the gap without increasing the County’s property tax rate. Earlier this month, the County Executive asked his department heads to and the elected heads of other County departments to prepare a plan to cut 20% of discretionary spending from their budgets.

“That was a little bit of a shock, but we’ve had this many, many times, including the city of Buffalo zeroing out funding completely,” says Vincent O’Neill, co-founder and artistic director of Irish Classical Theater. “We worked into our budget a 20 percent cut in county funding. But then he went from something that was across the board, with some kind of equity in terms of how you share the pain, to a political choice.”

The letter went on to warn of cutbacks: “The Administration believes it is only fair to put you and your board on notice, as early as possible, that significant reductions in cultural funding should be expected as part of the 2011 County budget.”

But the letter did little to prepare any organization for last week’s announcement.

“I don’t think anyone expected in their worst nightmares that he was going to shut out completely all but ten organizations,” says Tod Kniazuk, executive director of Music Is Art.

For organizations like Kniazuk’s, the budget news was not entirely a surprise. After Music Is Art failed to receive a letter from the county inviting them to apply for the 2011 budget, he e-mailed a county official asking whether or not the organization would be permitted to apply. The reply was a curt “no.”

The previous year was also full of county funding problems for cultural organizations. Arts organizations must apply for county funding through the Erie County Cultural Resources Advisory Board (ECCRAB) review process. While the window was open for applicants last year, Collins decided, without warning, to bar new organizations from applying for funding. This was after Music Is Art had completed the application check-list and had been given the green light to apply. Kniazuk had to appeal to the legislature to consider Muisc Is Art’s application.

“We had made a request of $45,000 and the legislature saw fit to include [it], and we were very appreciative,” he says.

Cuts to the arts, tax breaks for wealthy friends

Erie County Executive Chris Collins prides himself on running county government like a business, but it’s a business that cuts funding for cultural and arts groups around the Buffalo area while arranging tax breaks for the businesses of wealthy friends and political supporters.

Here’s an illustrative case: On August 24, 2009, the Erie County Industrial Development Agency (ECIDA) closed a deal with WNY Urology Associates, LLC, which granted the company county, town, and school real-estate tax exemptions from 2011 until 2025.

WNY Urology Associates is an independent cancer treatment center. The ECIDA’s sponsorship of their latest addition in equipment, a third linear accelerator called a RapidArc, as well as a vault to hold the RapidArc, will save the physicians of WNY Urology an estimated $699,592 in property taxes and $316,094 in sales tax exemptions, according to IMPLAN economic analysis software.

As county executive, Collins serves on ECIDA’s board. He also has key allies on the board, including the board’s chairman, Phil Ackerman, and its vice chairman, Phil Corwin. The principle partner in WNY Urology Associates is Dr. Kent Chevli, a close friend of Collins. Chevli and his wife donated $800 to Collins for Our Future, and $3,800 to the committee supporting the 2008 Assembly race of Jane Corwin—Phil Corwin’s wife. WNY Urology Associates donated $11,000 to Collins for Our Future, including $5,000 in July 2009, while its application for tax breaks was before ECIDA.

Michael Mack of Maxim Management completed the application to ECIDA on behalf of WNY Urology Associates. The application states that “this proposed addition will not be economically feasible without the assistance from the ECIDA,” but the means to invest $9.3 million were already there before the ECIDA approved WNY Urology’s application for assistance: not exactly an indication that the company was hurting financially. The application projected that WNY Urology’s expansion would create 24 new full-time jobs over the course of 15 years, and argued that the expansion can be characterized as “wealth creation” for Erie County—even though WNY Urology is already operating in the region and does not create anything—because 22 percent of the company’s clients will come from outside the region. Roswell Park Cancer Institute, a competitor to WNY Urology for clients, objected to the subsidy, but to no avail.

Twenty percent of the revenue generated by the county’s cultural institutions—which have seen a net job growth of nearly 1,300 jobs in just seven years—also comes from people outside the region. Yet Collins’s proposed 2011 Erie County budget eliminates $625,000 in support to local arts and cultural groups such as Shakespeare in the Park, Squeaky Wheel Buffalo Media Resources, and many others.

stephanie berberick

Meanwhile, Collins brought his 2010 budget proposal to the legislature with significant cuts in store for small cultural organizations, some of their funding even slashed in half. Democratic legislators asked the Collins administration to explain the process by which the funding cuts were made. But ECCRAB’s review records were not made available to the legislature, so, at a loss, legislators restored the funding levels established in the previous year’s budget.

Collins then had the opportunity to veto the legislature’s restoration of funds to cultural organizations, but he chose not to. Rather, he decided to withhold the funds altogether from many of the new applicants—among them, Music Is Art—as well as small culturals to whom he had denied significant county dollars in his original, proposed budget. In freezing the funds the legislature ahad approved, Collins argued that he could not be certain that the money the legislature had restored was actually available until a final accounting for the fiscal year was complete. That won’t happen until next spring.

As a result, Music Is Art has still not received the county funding it was promised for the current budget year, and Kniazuk is stuck between a rock and a hard place: Does he spend money that he’s been promised but which may never materialize? Or does he scrimp and do without, thereby furnishing the Collins adminsitration with an argument to dent the organization further funding in the next budget cycle?

Last year’s troubles have made Kniazuk weary about the fight for the 2011 budget. “Even if somehow we’re all successful and get the legislature to put that funding back in, that’s no guarantee that anyone’s ever going to see the money,” he says.

Last week’s announcement has many worried. Among the 33 outfits excluded from this year’s cultural funding are Locust Street Art Classes, the African American Cultural Center, Theater of Youth, and Explore and More, for starters. The county executive has decided that these organizations are not worthy of county support because they do not draw tourists to the area; however, their exclusion from the budget threatens to halt programming used mainly by Erie County residents.

“I think some of the smaller organizations that really cannot survive without county money might just disappear,” says Saul Elkin, executive director for Shakespeare in Delaware Park, which relies on the county for 25 percent of its annual budget. “You know the neighborhood art schools and the small dance companies are just going to disappear.”

Not one theater has been included in “the big 10” organizations for which Collins is allowing funding. What’s more, the funding he allows even to those 10 culturals reflects his proposed cuts to arts funding from last year—before the legislature restored the previous year’s funding levels.

Theater companies such as Irish Classical and Shakespeare in Delaware Park are in line for a hard year if the cuts are enacted. “I’m not sure what will happen to Shakespeare in the Park, I’m really not. This is a 25 percent cut of our budget and I don’t know if we can survive it,” Elkin says. “If Shakespeare in the Park goes, I think that the loss to Buffalo is just tremendous.”

Collins says that the rationale behind this decision is to invest only in institutions that promote cultural tourism—those which attract out-of-state visitors and their dollars. Kniazuk wonders if the emphasis on attracting out-of-state dollars makes good business sense. “The cultural tourism dollars, the spending in this community is less than 20 percent,” he says. “Over 80 percent of the spending is spent by local people. So he’s putting at risk that 80 percent to invest only in that 20 percent.”

Randall Kramer, artistic and executive director of MusicalFare Theater, echoes what many cultural heads agree is the issue with the cultural tourism motive. “No one is forced to attend a cultural event,” he says. “If our culturals are not funded and the excellence of their product decreases, local people will spend their cultural dollars elsewhere. They’ll take their money to the Shaw Festival at Niagara on the Lake, or Toronto or New York City. These dollars will leave our community and the sales tax revenues generated by audiences will never happen.”

Aside from the issue of promoting cultural tourism, the biggest question sparked by the announcement seems to be whether or not Collins believes the arts are worth investing in at all. According to a study by the University at Buffalo’s Regional Institute, in 2005 alone cultural organizations in Western New York generated a $264 million impact on the region. For every dollar donated to a cultural organization, there was a $9.65 return. The region’s cultural institutions paid $11.4 million in sales tax in 2005, $6.2 million of which went directly to Erie and Niagara counties.

Investment in Culturals = Job Growth

According to the Federal Bureau of Economic Analysis, in 2008 the number Erie County workers employed in the category “arts, entertainment and recreation” was 10,686.

In 2001, the number of Erie County workers employed in that category was 9,394. That’s an increase of almost 1,300 jobs in that sector—13.75 percent jump.

The increase of 1,300 jobs is not due to casino-related employment. In Niagara County, the sector produced 300 new jobs in that period, most of which are casino-related. In Erie County, casino-related employment accounted for less than one-quarter of the job growth, or less than 300 from 2001 to 2008.

The sector does not include “accommodation and food services,” which is hotels and restaurants. There was a slight increase in jobs in that sector, as well, from 6,500 to 6,800 between 2001 and 2008.

Tourism and visitors do not yet drive major increases in employment here; the arts and entertainment market may be primarily intra-regional and local, but curtailing its product offerings by reducing support for its providers will cut employment here, as studies show that visitors come for more than one amenity.

bruce fisher

In that year alone, cultural events attracted two million visitors. That is more than the combined attendance for the Buffalo Bills, Buffalo Sabres, and Buffalo Bisons throughout their respective seasons in 2005.

Cultural organizations also draw dollars to the businesses that surround them. “When we’re operating, the restaurants, the bars, the parking lots are full,” O’Neill says of the Theater District in downtown Buffalo, where the Irish Classical is an anchor attraction, along with Shea’s Buffalo. “When we’re not operating, it’s a ghost town. The economic spinoff for parking lots, drycleaners, printers, graphic designers is phenomenal.”

The deeper you drill down into the minutiae of a cultural’s operations, the more pervasive its economic impact. “Even the company that prints the playbooks. If there was only one theater, they’d go out of business,” Kniazuk says.

Many wonder if there is hope that funding will be restored at the legislature’s budget hearing on November 10. Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant is not happy. “I’m very dismayed that we have a cultural dictator,” she says. “I think a class-action lawsuit has potential to be successful. If it’s not instituted, nothing will be successful.”

Collins’ office did not respond to requests for comment.

Since 2008, Collins has taken measures to de-fund the arts wherever possible, so the chances that he will change his mind are slim. “He came to the Curtain Up! dinner on the Shea’s stage last year and in front of all the arts organizations, he talked about de-funding the arts,” O’Neill says. “When you go into the lion’s den like that and you make a statement like that, we know where he’s coming from.”

The attempted thinning-out of arts funding in last year’s budget—where small culturals, new applicants, and organizations of color nearly lost a great deal of funding, some never even receiving the funding the legislature eventually granted them—bodes ill. The cut to all organizations except the “big 10” also bodes ill for next year’s budget process. “If he gets away with this, what’s to say that those big 10 will be in the budget next year?” says Grant.

Kniazuk, who has served on city and county advisory boards in the past, is expecting the worst. “This is much larger than any one organization, even the ones that are funded right now,” he says. “First off, who’s to say that’s not just a one-year thing? Last year, he came for the new applicants and he came for the minority organizations. This year he came for all but 10 of the others. What’s to say he’s not going to come for those 10 next year? So even for the folks who got funding, I don’t think it’s over.”

Amongst the fear and concern of both cultural heads and patrons, most are prepared to gird their loins in anticipation of the worst. Organizations may close because of this, and the offerings of those who remain open could dwindle. Cultural resources in marginal neighborhoods that help to take kids off the streets may cease operations. No one is sure how to prepare for the loss of funding, and many are not sure they can.

“This is a sad day for Erie County,” O’Neill says. “There has to come a time when we stop picking on the weakest members of our community, because people who are perceived as the weakest members of our community are the people who give the most.”

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