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Cultural voices again woo county earmark Arts leaders, backed by Giambra, hope that lawmakers will provide a lifeline in the form of dedicated funding

Cheered on by their allies in government, cultural leaders tried in the late 1980s to snare a fraction of Erie County sales tax revenue as a permanent hedge against budget uncertainty -- their own and the county's.

They asked that one-eighth of the "temporary" eighth penny per dollar that had been added to the sales tax to bail the county out of fiscal hot water in 1984, and subsequently extended by the Legislature, be dedicated to the arts. The effort ultimately failed because of legislators' concerns about the county's bond debt and the wisdom of setting aside millions of taxpayer dollars for a particular cause.

Almost 20 years later, the cultural community is gearing up to try again.

Leaders will march in lockstep Friday to the Legislature's Community Enrichment Committee to ask that 3 percent of annual property tax revenues be set aside for the arts. That projects to about $5.4 million, based on current sales tax receipts, or roughly the amount currently allocated to the arts.

Cultural groups say the time is right for dedicated public funding because, as recent studies underscore, the arts are important to the local economy, and because their role as an engine of development is certain to grow as cultural tourism draws more and more visitors to the area. A dedicated fund, they argue, would end the sense of dread that spreads through the cultural community during the annual budget process, when these groups wind up pleading for subsidies in order to survive.

Leaders will testify with backing from County Executive Joel A. Giambra, who in late May submitted a bill designed to permanently lock in a predictable level of county funding for culture and the arts for years to come.

They hope the proposal will appeal to legislators because the money would be drawn from existing tax revenues -- to which they contribute far more than they seek.

"Culturals are like the [Department of Motor Vehicles]. They are an eco
nomic generator, and they are sales tax-positive," said Angelo M. Fatta, chairman of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra board.

Fatta, who meets regularly with leaders of the nine other largest cultural institutions to map strategy, pointed to a study by the University at Buffalo Institute for Local Governance showing that the local cultural sector generates $264 million a year in economic impact and $10 million in sales tax revenue for Erie County. It also employs more than 3,800 people, according to the study.

A report released last month by Americans for the Arts, a national advocacy group, estimated that arts organizations and their patrons generate $155.29 million a year for Erie and Niagara counties, which receive an additional $15 million in tax payments from the sector.

The cultural fund would help stabilize not only the majors -- the orchestra, the Buffalo Zoo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Buffalo Museum of Science, the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society, Studio Arena Theatre and the Darwin Martin House Restoration Corp. -- but dozens of smaller groups that regularly seek operating support from the county, Fatta said.

As long as culturals remain hostage to the vagaries of budgetmaking, "we can't plan one or two years out" or recruit people to fill staff openings, pointed out Kenneth Friedman, Historical Society board chairman.

"We'll be in survival mode," he said.

Still, the proposed fund -- which would require the support of a supermajority of 10 of the 15 legislators to become law, or eight votes to appear on the November ballot for voters to decide -- may prove to be a tough sell.

"I support dedicated funding 100 percent. To me it's a no-brainer," said Legislator Michele M. Iannello, D-Kenmore, chairwoman of the Community Enrichment Committee.

But some of her colleagues may be reluctant to get on board, she cautioned, especially if a property tax increase is on the horizon.

"We need to do it in a way that it doesn't create a hole in our budget or create a tax increase," she said.

The idea of setting aside property tax revenues for culture in the late '80s "died a slow death" in the Legislature "because there was a general feeling that if you dedicated a piece for the culturals, then why not do the same for transportation?" said County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan, who was on the Legislature at the time.

"The problem this time is tenuous county finances," Lehihan said. "There are no reserves at all. The sales tax is barely keeping us afloat because property tax hasn't been touched. And if you take a piece out of existing property tax, there's no room to maneuver."

Under such circumstances, Lenihan added, singling out culturals for special treatment "would be very difficult."

A lasting irony of the failed late '80s campaign for the arts is that the Legislature eventually dedicated an eighth of the extra sales tax penny to bail out the troubled Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, noted Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda. Under that formula, the NFTA subsidy has grown to more than $16 million a year.

"Imagine what that would have done for cultural funding," Marinelli said.

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com1

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