By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — Three members of the Niagara Falls City Council said thanks but no thanks Tuesday to the head of a prominent Western New York foundation who was offering matching funds to help support a local arts and cultural center.
During Tuesday’s council meeting at city hall, Chairman Glenn Choolokian and fellow council majority members Sam Fruscione and Robert Anderson Jr. told Oishei Foundation President Robert Gioia they did not believe the city could afford to take advantage of his group’s offer to match up to $15,000 in funding for the Arts and Cultural Center.
All three members supported an effort earlier this month to cut $30,000 in bed tax revenues originally earmarked for the NACC as part of the 2013 city budget.
Choolokian and his two colleagues in the majority expressed concerns about the city’s financial condition and its ability to afford any matching funds, much less $15,000 needed to take full advantage of the Oishei opportunity.
Choolokian said that while he appreciated Gioia’s “passion” for community groups and his interest in Niagara Falls itself, he felt the city needed a “new direction,” one more in keeping with a fiscally conservative philosophy.
“For 40 years, the city of Niagara Falls has been doing things exactly how it has been and that’s why we are in this position now, talking about shortfalls,” Choolokian said. “For this moment, we’re trying to go in a new direction.”
Gioia, a Buffalo native and former head of the Gioia Macaroni Co., now leads the Oishei Foundation, the region’s largest philanthropic organization which offers grant funding to various community based efforts in the Buffalo-Niagara area.
He attended Tuesday’s afternoon council agenda review session to personally plea for acceptance of the foundation’s offer, noting that his group considers the NACC a “vital” community resource in Niagara Falls.
He described the council majority’s view as “disappointing and “very, very frustrating,” noting that his foundation has provided upwards of $10 million in financial help to various local organizations, including Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center and Children and Family Services on Main Street.
“I see the effects of making these Draconian cuts down to the bone on organizations that are the lifeblood of the community,” Gioia said.
Anderson said the city simply can’t afford the NACC, especially when extreme financial hardships are being experienced at the local, state and federal levels. He suggested without cutting costs, the city of Niagara Falls will find itself in an even worse position in 2014.
“We are trying to survive and keep this city alive,” he said.
Fruscione questioned the city’s ability to stay afloat as well, noting that it has significant debt payments ahead this year, including several million dollars owed on the debt service for the construction of the public safety complex on Main Street. Failing to live up to the city’s debt obligations could lead to dire consequences, including possibly a control board for the city, Fruscione said.
“We’ll be the ones who are responsible at the end of the day, not yourself, Mr. Gioia, with all due respect,” he said.
Council members Charles Walker and Kristen Grandinetti thanked Gioia for the foundation’s offer and its support for various city organizations throughout the years.
“I’m sorry that things are going in the direction that they are because in this community the NACC is such a valuable resource to so many people,” Grandinetti said.
Both Walker and Grandinetti felt it would be a mistake for the city to pass on the foundation’s offer. Walker said he viewed it as an opportunity for the city to save $15,000 while continuing to support an institution that clearly has plenty of support from residents.
“When you look at our budget, there are other things that can be cut as opposed to the arts,” Walker said. “It’s not a real big deal, especially if we have the opportunity to now save $15,000 on that.”
In other matters, the council:
• Engaged in a lengthy discussion with Mayor Paul Dyster and City Controller Maria Brown about the city’s contingency plan for paying its bills should the casino cash fail to arrive following the ongoing arbitration process between the Seneca Nation of Indians and the state of New York. Several council members asked what, if any, options the administration had explored for dealing with costly debt service payments if the money did not come through as promised, including an $808,000, interest-only payment due in June on the public safety complex. Dyster said all indications from the state so far suggest the arbitration will be settled by mid-year and to the satisfaction of the state and, as a result, the city. Failing that, Dyster said the administration has discussed various scenarios for closing fund gaps, including revisiting last year’s offer from the New York Power Authority to provide $13.5 million in accelerated payments owed to the city under the relicensing agreement for the Niagara Power Project.
• Approved funding for a pair of new police initiatives aimed at curtailing crime in city neighborhoods, business districts and the downtown tourism district. The first initiative, the Safe Neighborhood Active Patrols, or SAFE, program, will add additional walking and bicycle patrols in certain neighborhoods to increase police visibility and presence. Targeted neighborhoods will be based on crime data, crime mapping and field intelligence. The program cost is not anticipated to exceed $53,825. The other program - a downtown crime-fighting initiative - aims to increase the police presence in the tourism district by adding more officers in electric vehicles, bicycles and on foot patrols. That program’s cost is not expected to exceed $26,913.
• Voted 4-0 to approve $2,500 in funding for the local chapter of Men Against Destruction Defending Against Drugs and Social Disorders, or MAD DADS. The group, which originated in Buffalo, works with local youth in an effort to combat crime and violence in the community. Their efforts, which are being supported by the Falls police department, intend to undertake street patrols in city neighborhoods and will participate in this weekend’s gun buy-back program. Fruscione abstained from the vote, citing MAD DADS’ member Ron Cunningham’s involvement in his election campaigns.