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BALLOT PROPOSAL WOULD STRENGTHEN CULTURAL BOARD

In the past, any arts group turned down for funding by the Erie County Cultural Resources Advisory Board could always try to sneak back into the budget by pleading with the county executive or a sympathetic legislator.

The strategy sometimes worked, to the consternation of volunteer board members who spent hours each year boning up on funding applicants before deciding which ones deserved taxpayer support -- and how much.

Though such special pleadings have all but disappeared as the executive and Legislature have come to depend on the board's recommendations, many in government and the arts think County Proposition No. 1 on next Tuesday's election ballot is a good idea.

The local law would make the Cultural Resources Advisory Board, and a similar board for public benefit groups, an official part of the County Charter. The boards oversee a total of about $10 million in county spending each year.

The way the advisory groups go about their business would not change, but their hand in the budgeting process would be strengthened because funding applicants would have to submit their proposals to them first.

Supporters believe this would discourage meddling in the process, though the Legislature still would have the final say on budget allocations.

The proposal "is vital to ensuring the fair and equitable distribution of funds and accountability for those funds," said Celeste Lawson, executive director of the Arts Council in Buffalo and Erie County. "It protects culture and protects the county's investment in culture, without subjecting the process to political whims."

Proposition No. 1 "shines a light on the process and makes sure taxpayers are getting the best return," said County Executive Joel A. Giambra, who proposed the change.

The county "is entering tougher fiscal times; tougher decisions will have to be made," added Legislator Lynn Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, who as chairwoman of the Legislature's Cultural Enrichment Committee knows the cultural advisory board's track record.

The 25-member volunteer group "has proven its worth," she said. "There is a small window between the time when the county executive's budget is proposed and the Legislature has to act on it, and we rely on the board to do the homework."

Keeping the politics out brings respectability to the process," Marinelli added.

Giambra, Marinelli and Lawson will get no argument from Robert B. Skerker, who has been a member of the Cultural Resources Advisory Board for six years and chairman for the last three.

"I'm pleased they recognize the proposition is important and support it," said Skerker, chairman and CEO of Robinson Knife Co. in Cheektowaga.

Under the board's scrutiny, he said, arts organizations "probably undergo a more intensive review than any other county-funded organizations would receive."

Skerker views the local law as "a way to institutionalize both the structure and process to make sure it survives well beyond the current administration."

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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