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Groups facing the potential loss of millions of dollars in public funding next year urged county and state leaders Friday to resolve an impasse that otherwise could trigger draconian cutbacks in local human services and cultural programs.

At separate meetings, human services and arts leaders warned that if state legislators fail to approve a one-cent per dollar increase in the county sales tax, and County Executive Joel A. Giambra reacts by slashing the county budget, their organizations and the quality of life they support would be devastated.

At her Response to Love Center on the East Side, Sister Mary Johnice reminded staff members from agencies like hers that they have helped lower crime rates, made senior citizens feel safe in their homes, helped children feel secure in school and fostered a commitment to learning.

"Is that wrong?" asked the nun. "Is that something we don't want to happen anymore?"

The county's 108 human services agencies assist about 100,000 people, none needier than families living near Response to Love at 130 Kosciusko St., where the poverty rate is 50 percent -- well above the city's overall rate of 27 percent.

"You have touched lives in such a way that you have made the county better. Now the county says it doesn't have money for that anymore," Sister Johnice told agency workers.

In the Smith Theatre downtown, Celeste M. Lawson, executive director of the Arts Council in Buffalo and Erie County, said the face-off over the proposed sales tax increase "has put our two greatest supporters at odds with one another."

The county and city, Lawson noted, have asked cultural organizations to join forces to reduce costs. In the same way, she added, "they should put aside their differences, work together, collaborate" to preserve county arts funding, which this year totaled $5.6 million.

For the arts community to survive, she added, "we cannot always be at the top of the hit list."

Slashing arts funding is counterproductive because theaters, museums, studios and other cultural attractions are essential to the local economy as well as to the area's cultural life, said Ken Neufeld, executive director of Studio Arena Theatre. The nine largest cultural organizations alone generate $141 million a year in economic activity, he said.

If the sales tax increase is not enacted and Giambra opts to cut spending by $130 million rather than double property taxes, he should resist zeroing out human services agencies, said Mark Lazzara, who directs the AmeriCorps youth service programs.

"With only so much money to go around, there must be some place to find $1.6 million in a $1.2 billion budget," he said.

But County Budget Director Joseph Passafiume said later the human services sector actually receives millions more that these individual agencies don't always see.

"I don't care where he finds it; I just want him to change the priorities and make the people important," Sister Johnice said of Giambra, recalling that a tear had formed in the county executive's eye when he helped distribute Christmas toys to neighborhood children.

For a little bit of money, the agencies do a lot of good, she said.

"And they are absolutely correct," Deputy County Executive Carl J. Calabrese said later. "All the agencies we deal with do good work because we monitor them. It just shows you how the Medicaid problem is putting these services at risk in New York."

County officials say that were it not for Medicaid, they wouldn't be considering cuts to human services agencies and cultural and arts groups or reductions in Sheriff's Department road patrols.

The state requires counties to help fund the nonfederal portion of the health care program, and Erie County's share will have increased by $82 million from 1999, when Giambra was first elected, to next year.


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