By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — Candidates looking to win a seat on the city council faced questions about the defunding of civic and cultural organizations last year, a subject that drew criticism at city council meetings this winter.
The questions came up during a community forum with all seven council candidates at the Rapids Theatre Monday night.
Three city council members — Councilman Sam Fruscione, Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian and Councilman Robert Anderson, Jr. — voted to block funds outlined in last year's adopted budget for a handful of civic and cultural groups that had been given funds for a number of years, citing the city's tough financial situation caused in a large part by the dispute that the Seneca Nation of Indians and New York State were then working to negotiate.
That dispute was settled in June. The city has received the money that was withheld during the dispute and is scheduled to continue receiving host community revenues as outlined in the 2002 gaming compact.
The council approved a budget that included funding for the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center, the Niagara Beautification Commission and the Niagara Falls Block Club Council in December, but the council majority refused to approved the appropriations agreements as they came up for a vote in February.
Fruscione, the one member of the majority who is up for reelection this fall, reiterated that he had to choose between funding the organizations and maintaining services and jobs during the city's strained fiscal situation.
"I believe that over time we've given them a lot of seed money and they've begun to grow, they'll continue to grow," Fruscione said. "If we happen to come across money in the future we could possibly support it, but we could never support it to the same level because we need to save for the future."
Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti and Councilman Charles Walker — both up for reelection — voted to pass the agreements that would have funded the organizations as outlined in the adopted budget.
Grandinetti said she could not promise to restore funding, but she realizes the important role that cultural organizations play in the community, especially as schools continue to cut funding to arts and music programs.
"We did run up against it this year and we were forced to cut some funding, but I do think that we cannot minimize the importance of arts and culture in our community," Grandinetti said.
Walker said he "totally supports" the NACC and would like to see funding restored to the organizations that lost funding.
"The arts are important to any city, especially a city that's trying to grow or a city that has tourism," he said.
Vincent Sandonato said he supports funding cultural institutions like the NACC, but would like to see more creative and efficient uses of the city money.
He suggested that the NACC could move to Main Street to create a more concentrated cultural district surrounding the Rapids Theatre.
"I fully encourage the growth of the NACC along with a reduction of the services that are wasteful," Sandonato said.
Russ Vesci said he sees other issues for the city, like infrastructure improvements and public safety concerns, as taking precedent over the funding of the organizations.
"Although I believe the arts and culture are essential to a community I believe that it should be funded through patronage and through sponsorship, definitely," Vesci said. "Whatever needs to be done to seek out those sponsorships would be fantastic."
Robert Elder, who recently toured the NACC with his wife Brandy, said the organization offers programming that works towards keeping kids safe and does more for the community than provide a cultural space.
Elder said the cultural center is "imperative" for the city of Niagara Falls.
"I just couldn't believe the work they've done for some of the people," Elder said.
Andrew Touma said he thinks the city should be supporting arts and culture and using them as an economic development tool.
He said he could see the Rapids Theatre acting as a neighborhood catalyst if the right partnerships were formed.
"We're in a theater today that is a state-of-the-art theater and we need to make sure that we build around it," Touma said.Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257