Garbage fees and cultural funding soon might have something in common.
Some have posed the question: Would property owners voluntarily add a few bucks to their user fee bills if the extra money went directly to cultural and human services groups?
The city appears ready to launch an experiment in altruism this summer. Officials want to give residents the opportunity to help ailing not-for-profit groups by including donations in their city bills.
Reductions in government aid have hit many groups. The city stopped cultural funding shortly after the 2001 fiscal crisis erupted. Erie County's recent budget problems triggered more painful cuts in such assistance.
A majority on the Common Council supports the idea put forth by Masten Council Member Antoine M. Thompson to set up a "community enrichment fund." The concept also has won Mayor Anthony M. Masiello's support.
But with many property owners already upset to learn of another likely double-digit user fee increase, prospects for this experiment remain to be seen.
"Let's hope citizens get behind this and understand how important culture is to our community," said Celeste Lawson, executive director of the Arts Council in Buffalo and Erie County.
Thompson met last week with Bruna Michaux, commissioner of assessment and taxation, to discuss logistics.
Using the city as a conduit for donations is trickier than it sounds, some officials cautioned. It also would add costs, such as outlays to print brochures encouraging donations and inserting them in garbage fee bills.
Niagara Council Member Dominic J. Bonifacio Jr., chairman of the Council's Budget Committee, wonders how many people will heed the request to send the city more money than required.
"We're not the most beloved people anymore in this region," he said. "There's a lot of mistrust when it comes to dollars and cents."
Thompson emphasizes the importance of getting out the message that the new fund would help worthy groups throughout the city. Under his plan, two citizens advisory panels would play major roles in determining who would get the funds and how much. An annual report would list all disbursements.
Advocates for culture are banking on the "rounding up" effect to raise some money. Let's say a homeowner receives a quarterly user fee bill of about $46 and change. Some people, Thompson says, might be persuaded to write a check for $50, with the few extra dollars going to the community-enrichment fund.
"People know these agencies are really hurting these days," he said. "They know something needs to be done."
Earlier discussions had involved property tax bills, but city officials said using garbage fee bills would be easier.
Masiello said he views the Council's plan "very favorably."