Erie County's state-appointed control board is ending its strict oversight of the county's finances -- for now.
The board, appointed to closely monitor the county's budget after a mid-decade fiscal meltdown, voted Tuesday to shift to advisory status after approving County Executive Chris Collins' four-year financial plan.
Top county officials applauded the move to sharply limit the control board's power, arguing that it was long overdue.
However, board members warned that the county faces significant budget gaps in the near future and that the "hard" board could return if lawmakers can't make needed spending cuts.
"The control board will not go away," Chairman Robert M. Glaser said in Tuesday's meeting at the Erie Community College City Campus. "It will still have a function as a watchdog for the taxpayer."
In a practical sense, the shift to "soft," or advisory, status means that the control board no longer has the authority to set limits on spending, impose wage freezes and reject new contracts.
Board members said the control board deserves credit for taking steps that helped Erie County over the last four years get on firmer financial footing.
Some members said the county has balanced its budget in part on federal economic-stimulus money and one-shot financial gimmicks, but county officials welcomed Tuesday's move as a vote of confidence.
"It's a good day for the taxpayer," Collins said in a news conference. "It's hard to say we're not on firm financial footing."
The Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority was created in 2005 to impose financial discipline on County Executive Joel A. Giambra and county legislators.
In late 2006, with the control board arguing that Giambra had not submitted a credible four-year financial plan, board members voted to become a "hard" board.
In the years since, board members clashed with Giambra and, later, Collins over issues such as who should borrow money for county capital projects.
Recent months brought signs of a rapprochement between Collins and the board, a belief cemented by the board's vote Tuesday.
Before voting, however, some members said the four-year fiscal plan relies too much on $74 million in stimulus money.
They questioned County Budget Director Gregory G. Gach on how the county intends to fill a budget gap that could reach $58 million in 2011 and 2012.
"The plan before us will only work if the political will exists to make the very difficult decisions" needed, said board member Kenneth C. Kruly, a former county budget director.
Gach suggested fee increases and Six Sigma efficiency savings, among other measures, but said spending cuts are possible.
Collins cited the county's improved finances -- a $13 million budget surplus and a $50 million reserve fund -- to show why he thinks the "hard" board is gone for good.
For the county executive, there's one other benefit to the vote: He now gets a paycheck.
Collins, as part of a campaign pledge, has refused to accept his $104,000-a-year salary until the board went "soft."
That money, about $183,000 over the last 17 months, has instead gone to local charities.
County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz said the board should have reverted to advisory status three years ago.
News Staff Reporter Phil Fairbanks contributed to this report.e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org