NIAGARA FALLS – A groundswell of public indignation over the City Council majority’s plan to reduce or eliminate funding for a city arts center and the city’s block clubs swept through City Hall on Monday night, as more than 40 irate residents signed up to speak against the planned cuts.
A capacity crowd of about 200 packed Council Chambers to support continued funding for the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center and for the Niagara Falls Block Club Council.
Standing ovations, cheers and vigorous applause greeted many of the citizen speakers, while members of the Council listened mostly in silence.
The Council voted, 3-2, recently to reject Mayor Paul A. Dyster’s proposed appropriations agreements with the Block Club Council and the arts center, frequently called the NACC. Council Chairman Glenn A. Choolokian and Council men Robert A. Anderson Jr. and Sam Fruscione voted against the appropriations. Councilman Charles A. Walker and Councilwoman Kristen M. Grandinetti voted in favor of them.
Among the first dozen speakers, as Monday’s meeting continued into the night, not a single one supported the action by the three-member majority.
Roger L. Spurback, president of Neighborhood Watch and a leader of the Block Club Council, told the three-member majority, “Your actions send the message that the good taxpaying volunteers who do good work for no pay and no benefits are being laid off in a day’s notice although they’ve accomplished great work. …
“We are defined by the greater good we have accomplished in getting houses demolished; crime and blight identified; parks improved; and bad landlords brought to justice in Housing Court.”
Responding to earlier criticism that the Block Club Council spent money to serve coffee and doughnuts at some of its events, Spurback told Council members:
“We will agree not to have coffee and doughnuts if you also give up your taxpayer-funded meals between the 4 o’clock and 7 o’clock City Council meetings. Let’s all row the boat in the same direction.”
Norma I. Higgs, treasurer of the Block Club Council, said that the block clubs were the first recipients of the National Sheriffs’ Association Award and that they received awards of excellence from the State Attorney General’s Office and others.
“We clean garbage and graffiti from the streets. We have established community parks. … Between clean sweeps, neighborhood events, block club activities and our day-to-day work, we have added thousands of dollars in sweat equity to this city,” Higgs said.
Gary Wolf, a resident artist at the NACC, called the center “a multifaceted jewel that would be the envy of any city.”
“It is one of the greatest assets the city has to offer,” Wolf told Council members. “You should double their contribution, not reduce it.”
Cindy Duke, speaking for the Greater Niagara Area Ballet Company that rents a dance studio in the basement of the NACC building, told the three Council members, “Shame on you.”
Late Monday, the City Council voted 3-2 against funding for the NACC. Choolokian, Anderson and Fruscione voted against the funding, while Walker and Grandinetti voted for it.
The five-member Council voted unanimously in favor of the $2,500 funding for the Block Club Council, although its original appropriation was supposed to have been $10,000. City Hall sources said Walker and Grandinetti still supported the larger amount, but they reluctantly voted for the $2,500 appropriation because otherwise the block clubs would have received nothing.
Mayor Paul A. Dyster said after the votes were taken that “many of the citizens who spoke at the meeting suspected that political motives were behind that action, and I think they may be right. If there are political motives, I wish the Council members wouldn’t take them out on the people of the community.”
The mayor said the outpouring of people who made their wishes known to the Council “are shocked, disappointed and angry.” He said many of them thought that taking their message to the Council was the democratic way of influencing government decisions.