Those who run libraries, museums and human services agencies plotted their next moves Friday against the backdrop of an increasing test of wills between County Executive Joel A. Giambra and Albany.
For weeks Giambra has threatened to withhold county money from the organizations unless Albany approves a penny increase in the sales tax that he says is needed to pay for Medicaid. And he's asked the groups to help persuade county and state lawmakers to do just that.
The pressure rose Friday, when Giambra submitted a proposed budget that would only pay for programs required by law -- leaving out money for the cultural and human services groups.
"We're asking them to share their concerns and their fears with Albany and others who now have to get to the table to figure out how we're going to solve this problem," Giambra said.
"I understand calls are going to county legislators, calls are going to state legislators," Giambra said.
With the unveiling of his spending proposal, "the volume of calls might increase," Giambra added. "And I hope they do, because legislators need to hear from their customers, their constituents, about their feelings."
The groups are not happy about being put in the middle.
"It's really unfair," said Mark Lazzara, who directs the AmeriCorps youth service programs. "We are really serving the least of Erie County. It's very difficult to do the job with the little we have and then be put in between the state and the county."
"I think our position is that we're not going to get caught in the middle," said Tracy Diina, executive director of Literacy Volunteers of Buffalo & Erie County.
"Our focus is on the people of Erie County," she added. "We refuse to be used as pawns."
So far, human services and cultural leaders have been careful not to alienate anybody, either those in the Rath County Office Building or in Albany.
Their strategy has been to stress the importance and benefits of their work rather than to specifically push for the extra penny of sales tax.
And many will continue following that strategy.
"I'm not in a position to tell lawmakers how to fix these problems, just that it's imperative that they do fix the problems," Library Director Michael C. Mahaney said. "If we can help, the library is here to help."
Mahaney added: "I'd prefer not to look at it like we're between a rock and a hard place, but in a position to help people build bridges. And the library is the perfect demonstration of the good that public dollars can bring the community."
Political leaders should resolve the problem, said Ted Pietrzak, director of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center and head of the Convention and Visitors Bureau's cultural tourism committee.
"Right now, we're embroiled in a crisis," Pietrzak said. "I think the elected officials understand the complexity of various solutions. We do not."
"The cultural organizations have relied on many levels of government funding," he said. "They feel very uncomfortable being put in the middle of some of this conflict between the state and county executive."
But with Giambra's proposal, others' strategies may change.
AmeriCorps and Literacy Volunteers are among some 25 agencies that recently formed the Erie County Public Beneficiary Consortium. The consortium has argued there is enough money in a roughly $1 billion county budget to come up with $1.6 million needed for the public benefit agencies.
That message didn't keep Giambra from cutting the spending out of his budget proposal.
"We may need a different strategy," Lazzara said. "This has come out, and it's bad."
Majority Leader Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, said Giambra's repeated threats to cut non-mandated spending are "not a way to govern."
"We on the Democratic side do not appreciate this kind of scare tactic and holding hostage the quality-of-life-services people like about this community," she said. "It's irresponsible."
County lawmakers say they have received more e-mails from the public about county spending and taxes since Giambra began to warn about impending cuts. Many constituents ask the lawmakers to keep services they covet.
"They're pleading with you not to close a library or not to destroy programming put on by the culturals," said Legislator Albert DeBenedetti, D-Buffalo, chairman of the Finance and Management Committee. "I feel badly for them.
"Realistically, their survival isn't the issue," DeBenedetti said. "The issue is to what degree they will survive. There will be some cuts. We're not going to close libraries, but there may be some reduction in services and hours."
DeBenedetti criticized Giambra for putting people in a difficult spot.
"I feel sorry they're being used by him," DeBenedetti said. "He's basically bludgeoning people trying to get his own way. I don't think it's going to be very productive. The attempt to manipulate all these agencies and groups to get them to pressure for what Joel Giambra wants is so transparent. I don't think it's having much of an impact because legislators recognize what's going on."