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Cultural Diplomacy

Erie County Legislature restores funding to culturals, libraries, and auditors, while Collins threatens vetos

Tuesday morning, several hours before the Erie County Legislature was scheduled to convene, Buffalo legislator Betty Jean Grant expressed an upbeat state of mind about the prospects for restoring millions in funding to public departments and programs, and to many private nonprofit organizations. The money for these wasn’t in County Executive Chris Collins’ 2011 proposed budget, before the legislature Tuesday. “You just have to be optimistic,” Grant said by telephone. “I am an optimist.”

This might have seemed to some people an unwarranted point of view, given the politically entangled stalemate that the budget process had become. The most prominent and controversial victims of Collins’ actions were several dozen arts and cultural organizations; County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz’s office, which sustains a 35 percent cut under Collins’ budget, a loss of 14 positions; and most often cited, the $4 million cut in the county library system’s money. This last had occasioned a great volume of complaints to legislators and public protests. Both Democratic and Republican legislators have been feeling the brunt of library patrons’ anger.

But the possibilities for funds restorations seemed limited as Grant spoke early Tuesday. There were at least four competing legislative plans to answer Collins’ cutbacks, from both sides of the aisle, none of them with much apparent chance of attracting the eight votes needed to amend Collins’ budget.

On Monday, Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams announced the outlines of the latest one, joined by West Seneca Democrat Christina Bove. This was also an answer to their seven nominal colleagues in the Democratic Party, led by Majority Leader Maria R. Whyte of Buffalo, who had been first out of the gate with a proposed reengineering of Collins’ budget. The seven, who are frequently at odds with their Republican-leaning chair, calculated they could restore the libraries’ $4 million, all of the comptroller’s positions, and $1 million to the 40-odd cultural institutions Collins had excluded from funding when he instead restricted it to 10 large arts and cultural groups. They cut jobs, risk-estimate and fringe benefits accounts, and executive branch salary raises from his budget, and claimed to come in with a total that was more than $100,000 lower than his.

Miller-Williams and Bove said this was only courting an executive veto, and late Monday they announced they could add $1 million back to libraries’ funding, and restore a little less than one-half of the cultural funding to only 29 groups. But in a development that made their position rather awkward, Republicans Kevin Hardwick of Kenmore and Amherst’s Edward Rath III each proposed revisions that gave $3 million to the libraries and $600,000 to the “culturals.” This left Miller-Williams and Bove looking markedly less generous than these two members of the supposedly fiscally cautious party, as well as annoying the other Democrats. Tuesday morning, Grant observed, perhaps just a little tartly, “Maybe she [Miller-Williams] talked to Mr. Collins, but maybe she didn’t talk to the Republicans.” Bridget Quinn-Carey, executive director of the public library system, was noticeably unenthusiastic about this Miller-Williams move, and even Republican legislative leader John Mills told the press it was insufficient.

This may have reflected the frightened and outraged requests and demands of city and suburban constituents that the library and cultural cuts be rescinded. The legislature’s Finance, Management and Budget Committee distributed with its budget report copies of this kind of message from officials in such Republican strongholds as North Collins and Evans. (There was also a petition from the members of the Erie County Association of Receivers and Collectors of Taxes objecting to at least two of the staff deletions from Poloncarz’s staff, despite the Collins administration’s assurance they would have no effect on tax collections.)

Nearly three hours of the time immediately after the legislature met at 1:15 p.m. was spent in two successive recesses, as members caucused and bartered in back rooms. In several swings through County Hall’s fourth-floor lobby, Grant continued to look calmly satisfied. A half hour before the members reconvened, she and Democrat Daniel Kozub (Lancaster) acknowledged that a deal had been struck. Miller-Williams and Bove had joined the seven Democrats, and accepted virtually all their provisions.

And when Hardwick rose in the chamber, as Whyte was about to move her side’s package of amendments, and made a request, it became clear that there had been some Republican movement as well. Hardwick wanted the libraries’ $4 million, and funds for three of the comptroller’s six deleted auditors, severed from that package so they could be voted on individually. This request, which a parliamentarian ruled had to be granted, made it possible for Hardwick and any other like-minded Republicans to vote for these popular measures without having to support the entire package. (Hardwick later admitted in a brief interview that this was just what he sought.) The library funding then passed unanimously and only Republicans Ray Walter (Clarence) and Dino Fudoli (Alden, Marilla) voted against refunding the auditors.

Much of the session, there almost seemed to be a good cop/bad cop dynamic on the Republican side. Hardwick was genial, gracefully humorous, and (dare one say it?) almost liberal. Walter, on the other hand, often came across as a hard-assed, unreconstructed fiscal withholder. Several times, he stood to denounce the other side’s budgetary “smoke and mirrors,” and to accuse it of thinking “money grows on trees,” of laying the groundwork to spring a tax increase later. At one histrionically emphatic juncture, as he pounded his desk and insisted that the debate wasn’t “about the libraries, the culturals, and the comptroller,” but rather about the dysfunctional state and county government, he sounded like a self-parodying version of the proverbial lawyer in the old joke line. (In summary form, a lawyer who doesn’t have the law or the facts on his side should pound the table.)

There was also at least one less dour, more elevated moment, when Cheektowaga’s Thomas Mazur only rose to say, “What a piece of work is man!” quoting one of Hamlet’s soliloquies, and colleague Lynn Marinelli (Buffalo, Tonawanda) spoke the next line, “How noble in reason.”

In the end, the entire package received only the votes of the nine Democratic members, and Wednesday morning Whyte was appreciative of her side’s cooperation and “prudent, community-responsive actions,” but she wasn’t unmindful of the political pitfalls that lie in the near term. She said she thought it not unlikely that Collins wouldn’t accept much of what was sent back to him. She believes it more likely than not that he’ll arbitrarily declare the cuts to his budget that were voted on to be “null and void,” and that, therefore, there isn’t money for funding restorations.

“He acts like he’s power hungry,” she said. “He’s a my-way-or-the-highway kind of man.” She remembers when former Count Executive Joel Giambra did much the same thing, and got away with it. “He’ll say, ‘If you don’t like it, sue me,’” Whyte predicts. “It comes down to a willingness in this body to challenge” improper assumptions of power and authority.

Although, Wednesday morning, Collins sounded as if even he had decided he’d gone a little too far when he indicated to WNED FM that he’d at least study the restoration of the library funding.

george sax

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