By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — Mayor Paul Dyster feels he may be the reason that three local community groups have had their funding cut or eliminated.
Standing in the auditorium of the 90-year-old former Niagara falls High School building, now the home of the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center — he was once the president of the organization’s board of directors and is still “proud” to offer financial support — Dyster said that he feels three council members are blocking funds to the NACC, the Niagara Beautification Commission and the Niagara Falls Block Club Council as an attack on him.
“I’m just getting concerned that what’s going on here is really political,” Dyster said. “I don’t know if it has anything to do with the NACC, the beautification commission or the block club council.”
The NACC, NBC and the block club council will receive either none of or lesser amounts of funding than what was outlined in the city’s adopted budget which was passed this fall. Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian, Councilman Robert Anderson Jr. and Councilman Sam Fruscione voted no to a resolution that would have allowed the administration to execute a funding agreement — a normally routine process — that would have paid the NACC the $30,000 that was set aside for the arts organization in the budget. Councilman Charles Walker and Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti voted yes to the measure.
All five members voted yes to funding agreements with NBC and the block club council after the council majority told the organizations that they would pass the agreements, but only with cuts to the funds promised in the budget. The block club council saw their funding fall from $10,000 to $2,500 while the beatification commission saw their funding fall from $5,000 to $2,500.
The council members who voted to defund the NACC and reduce funding for the other organizations pointed to “frivolous” spending practices, a tight budget and the length of time that they organizations have received funding from the city as reasons for their votes.
Those members pointed to spending reports submitted to Fruscione last April as proof of careless spending practices. But, those three organizations were the only funding recipients asked to produce the reports.
Last week Fruscione said that he did not ask for funding reports from other organizations that get city money like Niagara Community Action Program Inc. and the Niagara Falls School Board’s student-run television station OSC-TV 21 because of his involvement in those organizations. He is on the board of directors for NIACAP and works as a teacher for the school district.
Fruscione denies the funding cuts to the three organizations are political, adding the council has eliminated funding to other organizations and events and will continue to do so.
The council voted last year to reduce the amount of money it contributed to the Niagara Falls Blues Festival from the $30,000 it had enjoyed in recent years to $1,500.
Fruscione said other concert series — including the Hard Rock concert series — are on the chopping block. With anticipated casino revenues set in the budget to pay over $5 million in debt service the city is responsible for this year — and a new wrinkle in the state’s battle with the Seneca Nation of Indians over casino revenues with Gov. Andrew Cuomo saying that a non-Indian casino is a possibility in Niagara Falls — the council will have to continue to deny funds that were promised in the budget to meet those obligations.
“We have to end all of the fun and fluff and really prepare for this disaster that’s going to occur again,” Fruscione said.
Choolokian said he was glad to see people at Monday’s council meeting impassioned about their organizations and that he wishes people would have been so riled during the budget process.
More than 100 people showed up to the meeting, many to voice their displeasure with the cuts.
He said that groups like the NACC, which has received $30,000 since it was started 11 years ago, do good things for the community, but with the fiscal situation in the city being so dire they need to be able to fund themselves.
Other groups in the city get by with no financial assistance from the city, he said.
“You have to do what you’ve got to do to be self sufficient,” Choolokian said. “They gotten years of money when other groups got nothing. So how can they say it’s personal? You had a heck of a run there.”
Dyster said arguments from the council members working to cut the funds were a “smoke screen,” noting that funds for the NACC and NBC come from the city’s bed tax money and do not have any affect on property tax rates.
“This really has nothing to do with casino revenues, it really has nothing to do with property taxes,” Dyster said.
Dyster said the budget is a local law and that he feels there is some confusion over the powers of the branches of government. Under the city charter, it is not the council’s role to adjust budget lines after it has been adopted.
“It seems as though council is somehow asserting the right to change any aspect of the budget at any point,” he said.
Dyster has started to plan for other ways to raise money for the NACC to replace the city funding eliminated by the council members.
“I think, as a citizen and somebody who has been involved in this building from before the beginning, now I want to try to help them rally and get through these hard times,” he said.
The mayor has started planning a challenge to businesses in the region to step up and help fill the gap.
“Not just as practical means of support to the NACC at this particular point in time, but to show that those companies believe in the importance of arts and culture to the revitalization of Western New York,” Dyster said.
Kathy Kudela, the executive director of the NACC, said having money that the organization was expecting —and needs especially in the winter when heating costs sky rocket — is a “huge blow” and “disheartening”.
“This is the worst timing,” she added.
She said the extra efforts that the organization will need to put into fundraising to offset the loss of the city funding will hobble the center’s ability to provide programming for the community.
“It’s going to take us a lot of time and energy to overcome it,” Kudela said. “The energy and effort we could be putting into developing programming in other areas is going to have to be put on hold.”