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Polar opposites on small-groups funds

Small theaters, galleries and museums that once relied on Erie County to subsidize their budgets saw that money dry up a year ago.

The two candidates for Erie County executive have sharply different views on what should happen to that funding in the future.

Democratic challenger Mark C. Poloncarz wants to put the money back. Republican incumbent Chris Collins wants to stick with his plan to subsidize only 10 large organizations that draw the most visitors to the region.

We asked the candidates to explain their plans.

>Chris Collins

Collins unleashed a flood of criticism when he cut more than two dozen small arts and cultural organizations from the county budget.

He stands by that decision.

"With limited dollars, with Medicaid caving in on the county taxpayer, with health insurance costs skyrocketing, with pension costs going up 2 1/2 times, and I'm not willing to raise property taxes, where does the money come from?" Collins said. "You can't be all things to all people."

The incumbent, a Clarence resident, said he is committed to providing roughly $4.5 million in operating funds to 10 arts and cultural organizations he has termed "regionally significant" because of the number of patrons they draw from outside Erie County.

But he wants smaller organizations -- such as Shakespeare in Delaware Park and the Irish Classical Theatre Company -- to rely on the community, not the government, to run their programs.

He cut $865,443 that had been shared by about 30 small arts and cultural organizations from the 2011 budget and has no plans to put it back.

"I believe in smaller, limited government, so I did make this decision," Collins said. "If somebody's going to go through my budget and put this money back in, they're going to raise property taxes. And if someone says, 'I'll find the money somewhere else,' that's a cheap shot. Where is it? Show me."

Collins announced in September he would dip into the county's surplus to provide $300,000 in capital grants for arts and cultural organizations to fix up their facilities. The move was seen by some as an election-season ploy. Collins said he thought it appropriate to use the one-time extra county funds for capital projects.

Collins pointed to personal donations he and his wife have made to small arts and cultural organizations as an indication of his support.

"People have taken out of context the thought that I don't value them," Collins said. "I do. I go to them. I support them personally."

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>Mark C. Poloncarz

The Democratic challenger for county executive said that he would, if elected, take steps to help the smaller arts and cultural organizations in Erie County that he said are "hanging on by the skin of their teeth."

Poloncarz, a North Buffalo resident who currently serves as county comptroller, said that his plan would be to restore, as soon as possible, the funding of these smaller arts organizations to 2009-10 levels -- that is, the funding levels of two budget cycles ago, before the Collins administration cuts.

"They've taken huge cuts. They've done what they need to do to stay in business," Poloncarz said.

"I've talked to quite a few of them, and they're hanging on for dear life. Some of them may not make it -- they're clinging to life."

Poloncarz said that in his view, such smaller culturals -- not just the big guns of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the like -- play a valuable role in the community.

"They have tremendous value in this community, not only for the artistic value, but also as an economic engine," said Poloncarz.

"It's not just the Albright-Knox, it's not just the Burchfield Penney. Things like Hallwalls -- Cindy Sherman is one of the most important artists of the past generation, and she helped found Hallwalls."

Poloncarz said that figures he has researched during the campaign show that for every $1 spent by the public sector on arts and cultural organizations, government gets $7 back.

"These are economic investments in our future," he said. "It's an investment for the whole community."

Poloncarz said that he is concerned, among other cuts, about slashes in funding for culturals related to Western New York's African-American heritage.

Up Next: Volunteer fire companies.

email: djgee@buffnews.com

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