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Dec 09, 2019

What the $1.9 billion Erie County budget really tells us

As could be expected in a healthy economy, the $1.8 billion Erie County budget approved Thursday doesn’t cut much.

But it does say a lot about who and what matters most to county leaders. The politics and priorities became clear as lawmakers approved it in a 10-1 vote.

The budget includes a new “urban initiative” that Democrats supported as “a matter of fairness” but Republicans criticized as a polarizing move that disenfranchises suburban and rural communities. The budget also adds services and jobs and raises property taxes to help cover expenses.

Here are some key budget takeaways.

The basics

The county’s operating budget will grow by $36.7 million, a 2.2% increase.

As could be expected in a healthy economy, the $1.8 billion Erie County budget approved Thursday doesn’t cut much.

But it does say a lot about who and what matters most to county leaders. The politics and priorities became clear as lawmakers approved it in a 10-1 vote.

The budget includes a new “urban initiative” that Democrats supported as “a matter of fairness” but Republicans criticized as a polarizing move that disenfranchises suburban and rural communities. The budget also adds services and jobs and raises property taxes to help cover expenses.

Here are some key budget takeaways.

The basics

The county’s operating budget will grow by $36.7 million, a 2.2% increase.

The budget allocates hundreds of thousands of dollars for each of the priorities that emerged among lawmakers: roadwork, cities, lead poisoning initiatives, criminal justice reform, drug treatment, SUNY Erie, development projects such as the Bethlehem Steel site, and cultural organizations including the Shea’s Performing Arts Center.

The budget also adds more than 50 full-time jobs, a higher number than usual due to new state mandates. The number was originally higher, but the Legislature cut 16 new and vacant positions.

Taxes will rise, as they have every year since 2005. Next year’s tax levy – the total amount collected in property taxes – will rise by $10.1 million, or 3.3%. The levy remains under the state tax cap.

The countywide tax rate will fall from $4.84 to $4.71 per $1,000 of assessed property value. But given rising property assessments and other technical adjustments, a lower county tax rate alone provides zero indication of how much more or less any property owner will pay.

Political tea leaves

This is a budget shaped primarily by the Democrats, and it shows.

Aside from including millions to cover new, unfunded mandates from a Democratic-controlled State Legislature and the priorities of Democratic County Executive Mark Poloncarz, the 2020 budget reflects the ambitions of a Democratic-controlled County Legislature.

For the first time during a regular budget approval process, the Democratic majority agreed to give $1 million to the cities of Buffalo, Lackawanna and Tonawanda for unrestricted purposes except that the funds must be spent on construction and infrastructure-related projects. Buffalo would receive $500,000. Lackawanna and the City of Tonawanda would each receive $250,000.

This looks to be the beginning of a trend since the Democratic majority also voted in May, for the first time, to provide $600,000 from the county’s 2019 year-end surplus to give to the three cities for various capital projects.

Democrats have defended the practice by stating that city residents pay county taxes, too, but get no share of the millions for road improvements because city roads aren’t county-owned.

“What’s wrong with this picture?” asked Legislator Kevin Hardwick of the City of Tonawanda.

Republican-supported Legislator Lynne Dixon of Hamburg responded, “I’m not happy that this body tries to pit cities against suburbs and rural areas. We are one county government.”

Democratic legislators delivered other money, too. Of the more than $900,000 that the 11 county legislators divide up as grants to their constituent community groups and cultural organizations, each of the seven Democratic legislators received $100,000 to spread around their districts, while the four Republicans legislators received $50,000 each.

The minority caucus, however, negotiated for enough money to hire a new chief of staff at a salary of $104,838.

To cover the additional $9 million in spending agreed to by the Democratic and Republican leaders in the Legislature, the Legislature cut other vacant or newly proposed positions. The Legislature claimed credit for cutting Poloncarz’s proposed tax levy increase by $656,488, or 6%.

Sheriff lacks leverage

The strained relationship between the Democratic majority and the Republican-led Sheriff’s Office is reflected in the budget, which provides for things the Sheriff’s Office didn’t ask for but Democrats want, and denied the full-time SWAT team that Sheriff Timothy Howard has called a “high priority.”

The Legislature eliminated the funding for the full-time SWAT team, refusing to elevate seven part-time SWAT positions to full time. Instead, the Legislature earmarked $1 million to establish a Suboxone drug treatment program for jail inmates with drug addictions.

Chairwoman April Baskin described the SWAT cut as a straightforward “dollars and cents” issue and pointed out that the Legislature agreed to add several other Sheriff’s Office positions. She and other Democrats faulted sheriff’s administrators for making a weak case for SWAT during budget hearings.

“If they can come back and clean that up, we’re willing to entertain it,” said Legislator Howard Johnson, D-Buffalo.

Republican Legislator Edward Rath III, who cast the sole vote against the budget, said he hopes that happens sooner than later.

Same goes for the clerk

Conservative Democrat Michael “Mickey” Kearns also discovered the Legislature cut his budget.

Kearns said the Legislature cut his professional services budget without reaching out to him. That will harm his office’s zombie homes initiative and eliminate funding for a homeowner notification program that would safeguard residents against mortgage fraud, he said.

He noted the Legislature is awarding the Western New York Law Center a separate $200,000 grant for a new initiative involving homes that are paid off but have been abandoned by their owners. Kearns said that should be complementary to his office’s work, but it was not discussed with him.

Fixing the Elections Board deficit

After the county’s budget office and Board of Elections suffered an embarrassing “failure in communication” that resulted in a $2 million deficit in the board’s budget, the Legislature restored $1 million. Majority Leader John Bruso said the board has a history of requesting far more money than it needs.

Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph Mohr said the board is working to cut costs and will save more money if the governor does not call a special election for the 27th Congressional District. The board will decide if it needs to request more funds from the County Legislature during midyear budget hearings next year.

Democratic Elections Commissioner Jeremy Zellner said he’s made budget-related staff reassignments at the board office to ensure that no similar communication failures occur in the future.

Source:  The Buffalo News

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