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Gioia gets cool reception from lawmakers ; Oishei offer to aid cultural agencies unintentionally hurt Legislature's plan

Robert Gioia's Oishei Foundation offered the Erie County Legislature in recent days a way to funnel $500,000 to cultural agencies next year to spare them a total zero from county government.

So why was the reception for Gioia so chilly when he sat before a Legislature committee Monday?

"Robert," said Thomas A. Loughran, chairman of the Community Enrichment Committee, "your plan unintentionally derailed us from taking care of what we should be taking care of."

The Amherst Democrat explained that the Oishei arrangement let the Legislature's Republicans off the hook when it comes to maintaining a vigorous county commitment to the arts. The agencies will now receive a fraction of what they could have drawn under a Democratic plan.

Legislature Democrats believed they had rearranged spending in the county executive's 2011 budget to provide an extra $1.2 million to theaters, galleries, museums and arts venues without raising taxes.

That $1.2 million would go beyond what Chris Collins was willing to spend: $4.4 million for the 10 large sites that he thinks attract visitors from outside the county.

Collins was content to end county grants to dozens of nonprofits because he figures taxpayers cannot afford them.

Under community pressure, a few Republicans joined the Democrats to restore spending for some select nonprofits. To withstand a Collins gambit, the Democrats won a court decision backing up their cuts to various accounts to cover the new spending.

Last week, they needed just one Republican to vote with them to override the county executive's vetoes of that new spending.

Enter Gioia's offer. Eager to protect those smaller cultural groups, Gioia told the Republicans that the John R. Oishei Foundation would assemble $400,000 from private donors if the county contributed $100,000. The money would be distributed to the have-nots through the Community Foundation's Fund for the Arts.

Gioia, disagreeing with the Collins policy, had offered the sum to the county executive months earlier. He went to Collins' chief of staff, Christopher M. Grant, in early October when he saw what the Collins budget would do to smaller organizations.

With his proposal going nowhere, Gioia mentioned it during a November social event to Legislator Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda. Marinelli didn't run with it either. She explained Monday that she thought lawmakers would deliver the cultural groups much more money once they rearranged the 2011 budget.

But when it came time for the Republicans to override the vetoes one week ago, they comfortably did not. The Republicans had turned to Collins, who agreed to commit $100,000 to create a total $500,000 in one-last-time cultural support. The Republicans now had something extra to show the public for their decision to protect their Republican county executive's vetoes.

Of course, the Republicans had already extracted something else from Collins: $3 million to blunt the $4 million cut he had thrown at the county library system. Collins provided the $3 million only if the Republicans backed him up on every last veto.

With the libraries, too, the Democrats believed they could restore the entire $4 million if at least one Republican went along. But with that matter, too, the Democrats came away frustrated.

Collins has sent the Legislature paperwork to appropriate the $3 million, but Legislature Democrats are not inclined to rush the matter through. They might be able to leverage some other unfinished budget business into a larger restoration for the libraries, and time is on their side.

Loughran did not allow the $3 million to come to a vote Monday, to prepare it for a Legislature session Thursday, though it can still be approved then.

The $100,000 appropriation will come before the Legislature in the new year.

Legislature Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo, asked Gioia why he never called her.

"Did that ever cross your mind," Miller-Williams said, her voice rising, "that you would need to contact the chair of the Erie County Legislature for discussions pertaining to the Erie County budget?"

"Why didn't you call me and ask if there's anything you can do?" Gioia said during his response.

Miller-Williams and other lawmakers also asked about how the grants will be determined, and by whom?

Gioia said they will largely be determined by the private groups donating the money, but he said he will return to the Legislature's Community Enrichment Committee on Jan. 4 to discuss those specifics.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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