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Funding for culturals, city schools at issue in control board hearing

Concerns about funding for cultural institutions and the school system dominated a public hearing held by the state-appointed control board Monday on the city's proposed budget for 2012-13.

Fewer than a dozen people showed up for the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority hearing in the Market Arcade Building. The control board is required by law to hold such a hearing, but board Chairman R. Nils Olsen Jr. said it was important for the board to hear from the public, regardless of attendance.

"It's always useful to know what people are concerned about, because we are looking at the [city, School Board and Municipal Housing Authority] budgets, and it's a fair question to ask what is our relevance in [ensuring] the quality of the services that are provided and funded by the budgets," Olsen said during a brief recess in the hearing.

During the meeting, George K. Arthur, who is the board's secretary and a former Common Council president, voiced concerns about the timing of the board's own hearings on the budget, which are concurrent with the Council's.

"I think it's one of the problems with the [state] enabling legislation [that created the control board] that the Council is holding its public hearings right now at the same time that we're holding ours," Arthur said. The city "won't adopt a budget until sometime late in May or early June. When we get to it, whatever suggestions or recommendations we make, it's too late."

Olsen agreed, but control board Executive Director Jeanette M. Mongold noted that the board is still empowered to review the city's preliminary budget and suggest changes.

"Our board's approval is the final [authority], so we could, theoretically, reject the [city's] financial plan," Mongold said during the recess. "The board could do that in June. It hasn't happened since 2004, but it has happened in the past."

Meanwhile, Tod A. Kniazuk, executive director of the Arts Services Initiative of Western New York, was among those who appealed to the control board for changes in the proposed city budget under a four-year plan to improve city finances. Arts Services Initiative is a new technical service and advocacy group for local artists and arts institutions.

Kniazuk said the four-year plan lacks operational support for cultural institutions, which have forgone city funding for about a decade.

Council Majority Leader Demone A. Smith, who represents the Masten District, appealed to the control board to use its influence on the School Board.

"The City of Buffalo gives about $70 million a year to the Board of Education. We collected about $138 million in property taxes, which means over 50 percent of our property tax revenue we give to the Board of Education, [and] we have no say in how that money is spent," Smith said.

Olsen suggested that many of the problems with the schools and the city are not fiscal, but structural.

"As the city does better on its balance sheet," Olsen said, "it's appropriate for us to change some of the priorities we have."