By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — More than 100 people packed a standing-room-only Niagara Falls City Hall Monday evening to decry plans for funding cuts to two community groups and a Pine Avenue arts and cultural center.
After nearly two and a half hours of listening to more than 30 speakers plea for restoration of funds, lawmakers moved to trim the amount of city dollars dedicated to the Niagara Falls Block Club Council and Niagara Beautification, while eliminating $30,000 earmarked for the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center this year.
After Monday's meeting, lawmakers who supported the spending cuts said the moves had to be made to save money in a tight fiscal year that is expected to only get worse in the absence of any incoming casino revenues.
While he said he supports the work done in the community by each of the organizations in question, Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian reasoned the city cannot continue to support them "forever" and the time has come for them to find other ways to support themselves long-term.
"This budget has been one of the worst budgets in the history of the city of Niagara Falls," Choolokian said. "We were lucky to be able to cut the budget to no tax increase.
"I know next year's going to be worse without the casino money," he added.
The block club council, NBC and NACC have enjoyed support through various city funding sources for years. The NACC and NBC have received funding from city bed tax dollars, while the block club council has benefited from an allocation of property tax revenues.
While the council agreed to support all three organizations during deliberations over the municipal budget last year, members of the council majority balked at 2013 requests from Mayor Paul Dyster's administration to approve formal funding agreements with all three organizations.
On Monday, the council approved funding deals with both the block club and NBC, albeit at less than originally agreed upon amounts. In a pair of 5-0 votes, council members agreed to provide the NBC with $2,500 in bed tax revenue — down from the $5,000 contained in the budget — and the block club council $2,500, a reduction of $7,500 from the group's original $10,000 allocation.
Before voting, both council members Kristen Grandinetti and Charles Walker indicated that they voted to accept the reduced amounts because they believed both NBC and the block club would be better served by having some money from the city than none at all.
As for the NACC — the funding item that drew the most attention from speakers in attendance — lawmakers voted 3-2 to suspend all of the $30,000 that was to be dedicated to the center this year. Choolokian joined council members Sam Fruscione and Robert Anderson Jr. in favor of the move, while Grandinetti and Walker voted against the measure.
Walker called financial support for the NACC a "no-brainer."
"We put faith in that group and the community to take that building and bring it back," Walker said, referring to the original Save Our Sites organization which rallied to save the old Niagara Falls High School building and turn into into a cultural center several years ago. "I can honestly say they they've been very, very, very successful.
"It would cost over $30,000 just to cut the grass and shovel the show if nobody was in that building," he added.
Grandinetti criticized the handling of the situation by the council majority, arguing that the time to make such cuts was last year when the 2013 municipal budget was under consideration.
"We are forcing these groups to take a deal and going back on our word," she said, referring to reduced funding agreements for both the NBC and block club council.
One by one, representatives from the NBC, block club and NACC approached the podium during Monday evening's council session, encouraging lawmakers to fully support all the good work the largely volunteer organizations do for the city, including cleanup projects, arts and cultural performances and children's educational programs.
"I want to ask you guys — are you flat-out crazy?" said Jonathan Rogers, one of roughly 80 artists who rent space at the NACC. "There are things that bring spirit and lifeblood to a city, a town and a community and that's what the NACC does."
Kathie Kudela, the NACC's volunteer executive director, said following Monday's meeting that she planned to meet with the organization's board to discuss funding options for the future. The $30,000 from the city was a large portion of the group's overall funding for the year.
Before Monday's vote, she asked council members to consider all the good the center has done for the community, noting that it has offered an affordable haven for regional artists and performers as well as local parents and children. She noted that the "civic center" and community "gathering place" has grown from humble beginnings over the years as evidenced by the dozens of people who showed up at city hall to call for restoration of funding to the building.
"I am very lucky," she said. "To know these people and have them supporting us tonight is very moving."
Block Club President Roger Spurback took exception to some public remarks made by Choolokian and Fruscione concerning his organization's use of city funds in recent years. Spurback questioned the decision by a majority of council members to eat dinner at the taxpayers' expense in between afternoon and evening council sessions each month, saying they should be leading by example.
"We agree with you watching how public funds are spent, but also request shared sacrifice on your behalf," Spurback said.
After the meeting, Choolokian conceded that he and other council members did dine out Monday evening and that they planned to submit their bill for reimbursement to the city.
"If anybody knows the hours the city council puts in, I don't think it's too much to pay for a sandwich," Choolokian said in justifying the council's meal expenses.
Choolokian noted that over the years all three organizations in question have received a total of about $1 million in city property and bed tax revenue. He said that while he appreciated all the hard work those groups have done over the years, he said the city simply couldn't afford to continue to pick up the tab for them.
He added that with the money saved, the council majority intended to introduce new programs aimed at better serving the needs of all residents, including additional police enforcement on the streets.
Both Choolokian and Anderson said they wished the crowds were as large or as vocal during last year's budget deliberations, suggesting more public input was needed back then. Anderson noted that tough choices had to be made to address Dyster's "disaster budget" while protecting city jobs and not raising property taxes.
"It's not fun sitting up here," Anderson said.