By Neale Gulley
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — The Erie County Legislature voted 6 to 5 Tuesday in favor of an amended 2013 budget including no property tax increase, though it’s a plan County Executive Mark Poloncarz said “simply doesn’t add up.”
”Although I have earnestly kept the lines of communication open throughout this process in hopes of reaching a compromise that ensures the fiscally stability of the county and protects the programs and services demanded by the public, none could be reached,” Poloncarz said in a statement following the vote.
At issue is a difference of opinion between Poloncarz and legislative supporters of his original proposed budget, and a six-member coalition made up primarily of Republicans on the question of how much if any additional tax revenue is needed to support vital county services.
Poloncarz’s original proposal called for a property tax increase of 3.4 percent — which in addition to some $20 million in targeted cuts, would close a roughly $30 million budget gap. It would have increased taxes about $18 on a home worth $100,000.
He said an offer to decrease the proposed tax increase by half (in a deal that would have cost taxpayers an additional 9 cents per $1,000 of assessment) failed to sway the six-member, Republican-led coalition prior to Tuesday’s vote.
”I was told that it doesn’t go far enough to meet their definition of compromise,” Poloncarz said.
The coalition, determined to thwart anything but the smallest of tax hikes, instead pushed through a series of cuts totaling roughly the same $8 million intended to be raised through taxes originally. The amendments were supported by the slimmest margin, with bipartisan support from Democrat Tom Loughran of Amherst.
Legislator Kevin Hardwick, R-Tonawanda, said the package he supported included among other things reduced overtime at the holding center, reductions to funding for private legal services, about $3 million that was headed for the county’s legal fund available to pay judgements and a roughly $1.4 million reduction of funding for a county welfare program once slated to receive twice that amount.
”We don’t think the program needs the $1.4 million,” Hardwick said. “We could be wrong but I’m going to air on the side of the taxpayer.”
That sentiment, Hardwick agreed, could serve to summarize the entire package of amendments passed against the executive’s recommendations.
The state mandated, county-funded “safety net” program is a fail safe for recipients of social welfare like unemployment that has expired or otherwise is unavailable.
While it had been slated for a $2.8 million funding increase in 2013, the amendments reduce that figure by half, despite an uptick in county social services cases.
”If we need to find that money somewhere else then we’ll do that but we don’t think we need it to fund that program,” Hardwick said, citing research into program funding over the years.
”We looked at the history off the program and it seems to be a place where we’ve done quite well over time.”
On the issue of the county’s legal settlement fund, where a $3 million reimbursement was taken out of the budget, Hardwick conceded the drawer may be left relatively bare, but again insisted funds can probably be located elsewhere — including through county sales tax receipts he said should increase on strong fourth-quarter retail figures.
The county also has a reported $83 million fund balance that increased under former County Executive Chris Collins. The general fund is greatly increased from a low point of less than $10 million at the height of the red and green budget crisis, he said.
In summary, Poloncarz passionately disagreed with the amendments, saying the targets for cuts will be money the county has to spend whether Republicans budget it or not — and will only create a shortfall later this year, prompting spill-over cuts to other programs because the county can’t raise taxes mid-year.
“I am disappointed that when it was clear they would not accept any property tax increase — no matter what — instead of proposing real cuts in spending to offset the loss of revenue, they, instead, chose gimmicks that look good on paper but do nothing to reduce our obligated costs — not a single dollar,” he said. “Throughout this process, we’ve fixated on whether or not there is or is not a property tax increase, on this number or that number but what we need to really ask ourselves about this budget is what have we accomplished?”
Hardwick said Poloncarz’s concerns are valid, but stressed the county is among the highest taxed in the nation, and while he said there are risks to relying on fund balance or still unknown sales tax figures to compensate for any ill-advised cuts, it’s a risk ultimately taken on behalf of taxpayers.
“He’s right to raise those concerns — there’s no question that if we’re wrong there could be trouble. But we think he was wrong — that he way over-budgeted some lines,” he said. “I think we’ve got to be very careful, but I think in this case I’m very comfortable with the choices we’ve made.”Contact city editor Neale Gulley at 693-1000, ext. 4114