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Science, nature center leaders warn state budget woes may hurt critical economic venues

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

Joined by New York State Senator Timothy Kennedy Wednesday at the Tifft Nature Preserve in Buffalo, leaders of several science and nature education centers warned that their ability to fully serve the public - and remain important contributors to the local economy - may be in jeopardy if they lose state funding as a part of Albany's multi-billion dollar budget crisis.

The state faces an estimated $4.4 billion deficit when its next fiscal year opens April 1.

Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposed solutions for addressing the gap, as revealed when he delivered his proposed $168 billion budget in January, includes a mix of one-shot revenues, tax increases and some spending cuts.

Leaders of local science and nature centers fear their respective organizations will be among those taking a budget hit. A proposal under consideration by the governor and legislative leaders negotiating the budget include a cut in funding to the state's Zoos, Botanical Gardens and Aquariums program. Under the ZBGA program, funding is provided to such cultural institutions in a five-year cycle.

In 2016, the first year of the current cycle, $15 million was allotted to be divided among institutions statewide. What is now proposed is a $2.5 million reduction of that funding. 

State Senator Tim Kennedy says that would result in more than $110,000 in cuts to the Buffalo Zoo, Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens and Tifft Nature Preserve. 

"There was a specific level of funding that was allocated that not only were they depending on but that they budgeted for," said Kennedy. "To pull that funding away from them at the last minute, and to pull out the rug from underneath them, creates an incredible instability within these organizations and it puts specific parts of what they give to our community, as cultural institutions, at risk as well."

The Buffalo Zoo, if the cuts are approved, would lost approximately $60,000 in funding. Norah Fletchall, the zoo's president and chief executive officer, said the loss of that money would adversely affect their ability to provide educational programming to tens of thousands of guests, including children.

"It could also negatively impact our ability to continue to provide fantastic care for those animals that we are the stewards of, and we are responsible for providing their care and their welfare on a daily basis," Fletchall said. 

Marisa Wigglesworth is president and CEO of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, which oversees the Buffalo Museum of Science and Tifft Nature Preserve. She pointed out that the latter, where Wednesday's news conference was hosted, stands on what was once a brownfield, reclaimed and restored as a 264-acre nature refuge.

"It so compellingly with the importance and the impact of the kind of programming that ZBGA funding makes possible," she said. 

Kennedy noted that these centers are proven critical economic engines. He estimates the return for every dollar invested into the organizations by private or public sources generates more than ten dollars for the local economy.

"When you go to a cultural institution, whether it's the theater or one of these magnificent organizations that stand with us today," Kennedy said. "When you go to any of these organizations, you don't just go to these places of magnificence in our community and go home. You go out, you go shopping, you take your kids, you go to a restaurant, you go to a bar, you do other forms of entertainment, or maybe link in another opportunity to do something else. The return from an economic perspective is an extraordinary one."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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