Last fall, when Erie County voters booted former County Executive Chris Collins out of office and replaced him with Mark Poloncarz, it seemed as if a long nightmare for the county’s cultural organizations had finally drawn to a close.
A significant part of the groundswell of support for Poloncarz came from those cultural groups and their vocal advocates, who argued quite correctly that year-to-year operating support for arts organizations was a smart investment in the community’s economic future and indispensable to the region’s quality of life.
But support for Poloncarz was also based, in part, on the idea that Erie County’s cultural engines could be supplied with enough fuel to keep them plugging along without adding to the county’s already high property tax rate. Candidate Poloncarz ran on the suggestion – if not the outright promise – that he had no intention of raising taxes.
But two weeks ago, Poloncarz’s proposed 2013 budget floated down from the Rath Building with a 3.4 percent property tax hike. So if you thought the days of the arts being tossed around like a political football were over, get ready for a rude awakening.
In the third paragraph of Denise Jewell Gee’s Oct. 15 story on the proposed budget, Poloncarz ties the tax increase directly to funding for libraries, cultural organizations and sheriff’s road patrols. It’s also important to note that Poloncarz did not tie the tax increase to the massive subsidies the Buffalo Bills are currently trying to squeeze out of Erie County taxpayers for a dubious return, from the county’s unwillingness to renegotiate certain employee contracts or from its redeployment of the Erie County Water Authority as a patronage trough.
The county executive’s direct connection of tax hikes to cultural funding means that the task of the cultural community – led by incipient groups like the Arts Services Initiative and the Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance – just became a great deal more difficult.
During an Oct. 18 news conference at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park, cultural community leaders gathered to voice their full-throated support for the budget. They were especially happy, as they had every right to be, for the budget’s inclusion of 14 new organizations not included in the previous year’s budget.
The leaders who spoke – Randall Kramer of MusicalFare Theatre and the GBCA, Jim Allen of the Amherst Industrial Development Corp. and Tod A. Kniazuk of the Arts Services Initiative – made all the right arguments about why an investment in the arts yields exponential benefits. What they did not do, to their detriment, was to directly address the 3.4 percent tax hike and sell it to the many suburban taxpayers who continue to oppose subsidizing a largely Buffalo-based cultural enterprise.
During last year’s debate and the conversation that led up to it, leaders from the cultural community, including Kramer, often asserted the notion that sustained cultural funding would not require a tax increase. Now, the community’s cultural leaders find themselves in a familiar and unhappy political position – that of having to explain directly and honestly why those past assertions about a tax increase turned out to be untrue.
At this point, for anyone who has honestly examined the arguments or read the independent studies, the idea that making targeted investments in cultural organizations brings significant returns on investment is as incontrovertible as the laws of thermodynamics. Also incontrovertible is the fact that property tax rates in Erie County are already significantly higher than the national average.
For the cultural community, whether it likes it or not, reconciling those things just became job No. 1.