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Arts Groups: Town Budget Cuts Devastating

Huntington's 2012 budget has left arts and cultural programs searching for solutions.

If culture can be defined as that which is excellent in the arts, Huntington has plenty of it. But unfortunately, maintaining such a status quo seldom comes cheap.

The town's cherished arts and cultural society, for years the benefactor of a generous economic climate, now finds itself in an era of uncertainty as a troubled economy and stagnant property values have forced the need for essential services and lower taxes to the top of the pecking order in terms of town funding.

"It's disappointing but times are tough," said Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum Executive Director Paul DeOrsay. 

The museum and other organizations are bracing for $254,000 in approved across-the-board town budget cuts next year to arts and non-profit funding which for decades have helped define Huntington.

As it stands, the Whaling Museum will lose $15,000 in 2012 from its once-consistent $25,000 town grant which it has counted on for at least 10 years, according to DeOrsay.

"This one was tried and true but there are no guarantees in this business," said DeOrsay. "The town has done great by us for a long time and I'm hopeful that they will be able to do it again."

As the economy started to decline in 2008, the museum adjusted by playing it "close to the belt" and stripping down services and staffing as state and county grants began to dry up, according to DeOrsay. 

"We're keeping the doors open and keeping the lights on, but some of the good stuff is what slips," DeOrsay said.

Half of museum funding comes from grants and memberships with the other 50 percent coming from earned revenue and investments which have also suffered as a result of the economy, according to DeOrsay.

The museum will see more than 50 percent of annual town grant funding eliminated in 2012.

Concerned Town Board members, namely Susan Berland, Frank Petrone and Glenda Jackson, have vowed to search for funding solutions in the coming months, according to DeOrsay, sympathetic of the gravity of the .

"They don't promise anything, and I can understand that. I wouldn't promise anything in their shoes and I certainly take them at their word that they will try," said DeOrsay. "They have a lot of things to weigh." 

Things could still change, according to town officials, who are saddled with $8.7 million in increased mandated costs, pending employee contract agreements, pension contribution questions, rising health insurance premiums and high energy prices.

"We don't spend hoping that dollars will come in," said Petrone earlier this month. "We plan for that possible rainy day."

The budget pain is being shared equally, according to A.J. Carter, the town's information officer. "In very, very difficult budget times there are some really hard decisions which need to be made."

Town employees are being asked to contribute to health care costs and total spending is being cut by $10 million in 2012 to maintain an imperative set by Petrone to not raise general fund taxes, according to Carter, who noted that things could improve.

The Town Board voted down the preliminary budget 3-2 on Nov. 9 causing dissention among board members reagarding the significant cuts to the arts.

"There's a possibility that this will be revisited and some of the cuts will be restored," said Carter.

Set to take effect Jan. 1, the scaled down 2012 town operating budget which was  Nov. 20 will nearly eliminate the 47th annual Huntington Summer Arts Festival, according to the Huntington Arts Council which stages the popular summer series. 

Also hit hard is the Huntington Historical Society, who's board voted Monday to operate in a budget deficit as a result of the town cuts.

"Do we cut now or do we go ahead with what is clearly a $22,000 deficit and see where we can go from there?" said acting Huntington Historical Society Coordinator Toby Kissam, who has worked without pay for nearly four years since retiring as a math teacher at Harborfields High School.  

Founded in 1903, the Historical Society once employed a full-time director and full-time curator — but times have changed. Employee hours have been slashed as a result of the cuts and the uncertain future of the century-old organization's programs raises concern among members.

"If you continue to spend money that you don't take in ... you're eventually out of business," said Kissam. "We had to cut some hours but have not cut positions yet."

In recent years, the Historical Society has been granted $55,000 by the town. In 2012, town funding was cut to $25,000 — a more than 50 percent decrease.

With an annual operating budget of approximately $350,000 to run four Huntington properties pay bills and staff operations, $30,000 is significant to an already understaffed organization which now employs a part-time crew of seven.

Kissam said the situation will be reevaluated in six months, but he warned against the possible elimination of decades of historical progress.

"If you stop it for a couple of years you are not going to get it back," said Kissam, who suggested the Town Board spend money for things that maintain Huntington's public interest.

"They are well aware of the devastating effect it's going to have on us and our programs," said Kissam. "They are in a quandary, obviously, and are looking for revenue sources ... hopefully they will find them." 

But in the meantime, the HHS is faced with the daunting task of raising nearly 20 percent of its annual operating budget to maintain programs and pay bills with less help from the town.

Facing $1,000 in lost funding, Huntington Lighthouse Preservation Society representatives say they feel somewhat lucky, but disappointed.

"It seems as though our town supervisor and Board have done everything in their power to promote the arts and historic preservation," said society president Pamela Setchell. "Then all of a sudden, it's like you are pulling the carpet out from underneath."

Because the lighthouse is situated over the water, with no land-based central location, Setchell said the cuts, although small in dollar amount, will be harder for them to make up because of the logistics and fund raising factors unique to the lighthouse.

Gone is 20 percent of the $5,000 which the Lighthouse group annually receives from the town to help alleviate costs towards their annual budget of about $40,000.

Setchell said she is grateful that the town has written her organization in for grants in the 14 years since she became president, but the cuts are taking their toll on workers at non-profit organizations like hers and others throughout Huntington.

"Now, they just put a noose around their neck," Setchell said. "It seems as though they've gone and taken 10 steps forward and now they are going to take 17 backwards."

Clifford Sondock November 30, 2011 at 03:40 PM
Bravo! I think we're done...
Jerry Hannon December 01, 2011 at 03:02 AM
So nice of Mr. Sondock to tell us we're done. Do make donations, to the extent you are able. Many of you are not suffering in this economy, but far too may people are barely making it and cannot afford to do so. For those who have lost jobs, or had hours cut back, the cruel philosophy of Ayn Rand and her libertarian high priests is never kind to them. But don't imagine that private donations is the only path; government has an important role in supplementally funding the arts, but now may be the time for cuts, until things turn around.
Dan Ciccone December 01, 2011 at 05:16 AM
Clifford... You think that when I am talking about the General Welfare of Americans and the public good, that I am talking about "the Welfare System" as in financial assistance??? You and I are not connecting the dots. And I cannot continue this obtuse dialogue.
Dylan Skolnick December 01, 2011 at 07:17 AM
The arts will continue no matter what, but government spending on the arts makes our society richer, stronger and healthier. I'm not sure what food shelters have been closed because they do not pass health dept regulations and building codes, but if that is true, they should be closed. Health department regulations are essential to the protection of all. There is no reason why we should accept that the homeless should receive poisoned food. Regulation is one of the most important functions of government. We need more regulation, not less.
Kim December 01, 2011 at 01:53 PM
Please don't tell me I don't understand. I do understand. I don't agree! Do not belittle my views by trying to make me out to be an idiot. I am far from it. I can actually see the forest through the trees, whats left of them.

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