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'Santa' Gioia mugged for bringing gift

Santa Claus came to town. Barbara Miller-Williams beat the stuffing out of him.

Let that be a lesson to anyone who comes to the Erie County Legislature bearing gifts. You'll leave battered and bleeding.

Judging by what we saw this week, I would hate to be St. Nick when he comes down the chimney Saturday at the Miller-Williams residence. Instead of leaving milk and cookies, she will lay into the jolly elf for not vetting his gift list with her, or checking it twice.

Miller-Williams, the Democrat who heads the County Legislature, on Monday publicly encountered a man with a graying beard (although not wearing a red suit) bearing a $400,000 offering. She verbally beat the stuffing out of him.

Bob Gioia, president of the Oishei Foundation, wanted to help the Legislature's funding of smaller cultural groups, whose $625,000 in county aid Chris Collins wanted to end. Gioia brokered a deal that last week was embraced by the six Republican legislators, whose strings the county executive pulls.

Gioia told the arts-resistant Republicans that, if the Legislature put up $100,000, it would leverage $400,000 in foundation money. The $500,000 total would sustain the smaller arts groups while maintaining a sliver of public dollars -- instead of the zero that Collins initially wanted. It seemed like a sensible solution, since the arts-friendly Democratic legislators did not have enough votes to stop the Collins-controlled Republicans from otherwise cutting all the county funding.

But no. Little did rational folks realize how much the deal ticked off the Legislature's Democrats. They were steamed that Republicans might get credit for "saving" the arts groups -- for whom the Democrats wanted to do more, but did not have the votes. The fact that the culturals got the dollars they needed mattered less to Miller-Williams, Tom Loughran and other Democrats than the notion that they had been upstaged.

I only wish that I was making this up. Instead of being treated as the guy who rode to the rescue, Gioia was abused at a legislative hearing by Miller-Williams for not first running the deal past her. Voice raised, she accused Gioia of "arrogance, as if you know everything that we need to do here."

Whew. Only around here do politicians treat a private offer to quadruple taxpayer dollars as an insult. A battered Gioia, to the surprise of no one, pulled the deal. The foundations will fund the arts groups on their own, without the $100,000 of county money -- and the abuse that goes with it.

I can picture it now. Miller-Williams to Santa: Get back up that chimney, take those reindeer off my roof, and give the one with the red nose a Breathalyzer test.

This is hardly the first time that politicians put their agendas ahead of the interests of the people they supposedly serve. But seldom is the ego-flexing this obvious. By pounding Gioia into submission, Miller-Williams and Loughran ultimately deprived smaller arts groups of the last $100,000 of county funding they will likely ever see. Merry Christmas!

Miller-Williams claimed that Gioia's offer sideswiped Democrats' chances of getting more county funding for culturals. But that depended on a Republican legislator breaking ranks -- which clearly was not going to happen. To think otherwise was delusional. Or political posturing. Or, in this case, both.

Miller-Williams simply got this to where the county executive -- the Democrats' nemesis in arts funding -- wanted it to go: no county funding for smaller cultural groups. Collins didn't have to drive the final nail in the coffin. Miller-Williams did it for him.

He ought to send her a Christmas card.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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