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Flap emerges over Falls paying bands Memorial Day parade volunteer leader objects to way the city distributed funds

Several bands that marched alongside the veterans and Girl Scouts in last year's Memorial Day parade were paid by the city to participate, but veterans who run the event said last week that they had no idea any city money was used.

Cyndi Stonebraker, a veteran and a chairwoman of the Memorial Day Association, said she was angry to learn that the Niagara Fine Arts Program received $5,000 last year to provide bands, video and sound equipment for a parade that is run by volunteers and is made up mostly of community groups.

"This parade is for the veterans by the veterans, but everyone benefits from us marching up and down Pine Avenue," Stonebraker said. "In the last three years, we haven't seen a dime from the city, but it's not from lack of asking."

Niagara Fine Arts Program, a nonprofit organization led by Harry F. Abate Elementary School Assistant Principal Patrick M. Kuciewski, is poised to receive another $5,000 for Memorial Day this year as part of a $20,000 contract to provide summer concerts and events for the city.

The City Council last Monday delayed voting on the proposed contract after Stonebraker raised questions about its fairness.

The city also allocated $5,000 to Niagara Fine Arts for the Memorial Day parade in 2007.

Stonebraker said the Memorial Day Association received $3,000 from the city in 2005 to pay for cash prizes and plaques for Memorial Day events that year, but has not received any money since then to run the parade.

Leaders of the group have done their own fundraising or contributed small donations to help keep the parade going, Stonebraker said.

David Fabrizio, another veteran involved in organizing the parade, said he also didn't know anything about Niagara Fine Arts Program before last week.

Kuciewski, who is a volunteer executive director of the Niagara Fine Arts Program, said $5,000 was used to pay for three bands, including a donation to the Niagara Falls School District Wolverine Marching Band, as well as contracts to make a video of the parade and provide sound equipment and insurance.

Kuciewski and Councilman Sam Fruscione said they believed Stonebraker knew Niagara Fine Arts Program received money to provide bands and other assistance. Fruscione sits on a tourism board that was the first to field a proposal from Kuciewski to provide the concert series.

"The only reason we do these things is to provide quality fine arts programs for the community of Niagara," Kuciewski said. "Quite frankly, if there's anything that's left financially to be made at the end of all the concerts and everything, that money is rolled over to support the summer musical theater program for the kids."

Kuciewski and Fruscione both work at Abate school. Fruscione is a teacher at the elementary school. Kuciewski was an assistant principal at Niagara Falls High School when he first proposed the concert series and has since been transferred to Abate.

Fruscione and Kuciewski both said their common workplace had nothing to do with the concert contract.

Kuciewski came to the city's Tourism Advisory Board in 2007 with a proposal to provide concerts and entertainment for public events. The proposal was then sent to the City Council, which authorized the mayor in March 2008 to sign a $36,000 contract with Niagara Fine Arts Program to provide two series of summer concerts on Fridays and Sundays, as well as entertainment for Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

No public notice or bidding process was used to find a group to provide concerts and entertainment for the city.

But Fruscione, who serves as a liaison between the Council and the Tourism Advisory Board, said board members made public statements during meetings that they were looking for better entertainment and bands for the Memorial Day parade and other events. Those meetings were written about by local papers.

"The city was upset with the condition of the parade," Fruscione said. "It was dwindling down again and we were trying to beef it up."

Fruscione said he believes Stonebraker was aware that Niagara Fine Arts Program was being paid because she exchanged e-mails with Kuciewski to discuss the bands he was providing.

"It's just a game that's being played by Cyndi Stonebraker, and for her to stand in front of the Council and pretend like as if she's never worked with him, and she did for Veterans Day and for last Memorial Day, is a crock," Fruscione said.

However, Stonebraker said Kuciewski never identified himself as the executive director of Niagara Fine Arts Program in those e-mails, which were sent from his school account.

Stonebraker admitted her organization might have "dropped the ball" when it came to pursuing city funding, but she said no city leaders reached out to her when they chose to pay another group to participate in Memorial Day.

Stonebraker said City Administrator Donna D. Owens contacted her Thursday to set up a meeting between the two groups to discuss the parade issue.

"We're going to sit down and resolve this," Stonebraker said, "because ultimately the people of Niagara Falls will suffer if there's no parade."

e-mail: djgee@buffnews.com

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