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Donors scrap county arts deal ; Private groups sever partnership; plan to raise and distribute funds without Legislature input

A day after after facing some unhappy Erie County lawmakers, Robert Gioia and the other donors raising money for a slew of cultural agencies have chosen to go it alone without county government as a partner and contributor.

"We have decided to revise our strategy," Gioia, president of the John R. Oishei Foundation, said Tuesday.

He said the Oishei Foundation will still draw in a fortune from private donors for the dozens of cultural agencies that County Executive Chris Collins froze out of Erie County's 2011 budget. Gioia even mentioned a new goal of $600,000.

However, he said that he and the other decision-makers have opted for no county involvement at all -- unlike his original plan to drum up $400,000 for the arts if county government threw in $100,000.

What changed?

Gioia said that after appearing before a Legislature committee Monday, he and the others on his team feared the Legislature would "distract" them from their objective: "To deal with the cultural agencies as quickly as possible."

He said he found from the Legislature too many "misrepresentations and misunderstandings and accusations of 'unintended consequences.' "

Fearing future struggles, he said, the Oishei Foundation will proceed without expecting anything from the government.

Some of the lawmakers gathered Monday for a session of the Community Enrichment Committee didn't always appear grateful that Gioia had offered $400,000 to create a $500,000 pool to help galleries, museums and theaters raise the curtain on another year.

Legislature Democrats believed that a week ago, they were close to adding a total $1.2 million for the arts in 2011 by rearranging the Collins budget. All they needed was one Republican lawmaker to vote with them to override Collins' vetoes of that extra spending.

Then the Republican bloc heard Gioia's offer and persuaded Collins to commit the required $100,000. With that, the Republicans would have something to show for their stand to protect the Republican county executive's vetoes -- even if $500,000 was a fraction of what the Democrats thought they could deliver.

"Robert," committee Chairman Thomas A. Loughran said to Gioia on Monday, "your plan unintentionally derailed us from taking care of what we should be taking care of."

Other Democrats wondered whether the Legislature would still have a say in determining each grant. Gioia responded that they would have no say in disbursing the $400,000 from private sources. The money would be distributed through the Community Foundation's Fund for the Arts, established after the scorched-earth Erie County budget of 2005.

Legislature Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams of Buffalo repeated her fears that urban Buffalo applicants would receive less. She also upbraided Gioia for not calling her with his offer. Meanwhile, Legislator Lynn M. Marinelli of the Town of Tonawanda wondered if there were legal problems with the unusual arrangement.

Still, when Gioia left the session, he expressed no loss of enthusiasm for his so-called public-private partnership. He promised to return to the next meeting, Jan. 4, with more details.

"I opened that meeting thanking him and expressing appreciation for his effort to come forward with a short-term solution," Loughran said. "Other than a brief exchange with Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams, I would not characterize that meeting as hostile or contentious.

"I think that everyone seemed to be very complimentary toward him for coming out. But even Robert Gioia agreed that government has a role to play in funding the arts and culturals. We were taking care of this."

Legislature Democrats were in no rush to appropriate the $100,000, an action that wasn't expected until the new year. They also are in no rush to appropriate the extra $3 million that Republicans extracted for the library system, in trade for protecting Collins vetoes.

The Democrats are waiting for the chance to leverage some unsettled budget matters into a total $4 million restoration for the libraries and more arts spending. Time appears to be on their side, though they've scheduled a meeting on the arts funding for 2 p.m. Thursday.

In mentioning a $600,000 fundraising goal, Gioia said it's the approximate amount of county support being shared this year by the dozens of nonprofits that Collins froze out for 2011.

Collins has decided that just 10 large attractions -- such as the zoo, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Burchfield Penney Art Center -- deserve county taxpayer money.

Gioia and Oishei Foundation Chairman Jim Wadsworth delivered their news Tuesday by sending a memo to Collins and Miller-Williams.

"If the Legislature or the executive wishes to participate in the Fund for the Arts with a financial contribution to the fund, it will be welcome," they said. "However, it will only be accepted without any conditions beyond a requirement to report on how it was distributed."

Miller-Williams later said she's going to work with Collins to still contribute county dollars to the fund -- "to provide needed financial support to the noted arts and cultural organizations."

Meanwhile, the Republicans issued a statement expressing their "disappointment" and noting that Gioia's announcement came just a day after the committee "criticized the foundation's generous offer."

"The caucus thanks Mr. Gioia for his offer to help county cultural organizations and for his continued support for the region," said Minority Leader John J. Mills of Orchard Park. "This public-private partnership was an exemplary plan, one that the Republican Caucus strongly supported."

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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