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Topic shifts as Oishei officer talks about evaluating culturals

A panel of the Erie County Legislature met Thursday with an officer of the John R. Oishei Foundation.

They got along just fine.

It was unlike that now-infamous meeting Dec. 20, when the Legislature's Community Enrichment Committee gave a cool reception to Oishei President Robert D. Gioia, even though Gioia came offering $400,000 for the dozens of cultural groups that the county would no longer assist in 2011.

The next day, Gioia told the Legislature that their "public-private partnership" was over. The foundation would still deliver at least $400,000, he said, but no longer expected input or help from county government, not even the $100,000 that had been arranged.

When Oishei Foundation Vice President Paul T. Hogan met with the committee Thursday, he wanted to talk not about the partnership that blew up a month ago, but about an emerging effort to collect data to assess cultural providers.

The New York State Cultural Data Project is patterned after programs elsewhere. It asks organizations to identify, among other things, their number of employees, their programs, their fundraising efforts and their array of revenue. The numbers go into a database maintained by the Pew Charitable Trusts to provide apples-to-apples comparisons for donors.

While Hogan wasn't there to talk about the deal that soured in December, it came up nonetheless.

"I don't want to rehash everything. But let me just give you my perspective on this," said Legislator Kevin R. Hardwick of the City of Tonawanda, one of the Republicans who jumped at the arrangement with Gioia and the Oishei Foundation at the height of last month's budget travails.

"We were going back-and-forth with Mr. Gioia, and I appreciate everything he did."

Hardwick then asked: If the Legislature was to revive its $100,000 contribution to the partnership, could it direct the money to certain recipients? Among the few he mentioned was the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park, which some Republicans had tried to protect last month.

"I really was not going to talk about the $100,000," Hogan said.

"Well, I think we have to," Hardwick said, calling it the elephant in the room.

Hogan than said that if the county were to contribute, it should try to help as many recipients as possible, not a select few. He mentioned the Western New York Arts Services Initiative as a program that would provide support to many charitable groups. It attempts to provide and improve management services for small arts groups and is worthy of county support, he said.

Hardwick and a few lawmakers revealed their hopes to still contribute more taxpayer money this year to the arts, especially after budget officials reported this week that county government's budget surplus for 2010 could land between $15 million and $20 million, better than projected when the Legislature was adopting a budget for 2011.

Legislature Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo, said she would like to offer $200,000 to the arts.

Whatever the figure, lawmakers will need County Executive Chris Collins' cooperation. Collins relented to $100,000 back in December when fellow Republicans appealed to him. But he insisted that it was a one-time concession.

"I remain committed to funding these culturals," Legislator Betty Jean Grant, D-Buffalo, said Thursday.

"Is there still a need for county funding?" she asked.

"Yes, there is still a need for county funding," Hogan answered, adding that the arts contributes to the quality of life in a way that should not be measured by tourism benefits alone.

"How many organizations are to be funded, and at what level," he said, "is always the question."

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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