County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz’s proposal to raise Erie County property taxes by 3.4 percent landed with a thud Monday in the Legislature offices.
Republicans immediately opposed the idea, and while some Democrats said they want to hear from their constituents, others sounded wary of imposing more taxes.
“We’re 100 percent opposed to any type of tax increase,” said Legislator Joseph C. Lorigo, a Conservative Party member from West Seneca who aligns with Republicans on the Legislature.
Poloncarz’s proposed $1.38 billion spending plan for 2013, which relies on a tax increase, job cuts and surplus funds to balance the budget, is now in the hands of the county’s 11 legislators. They will spend the next seven weeks inspecting the budget books and could come up with their own proposals for county spending before the budget is finalized in early December.
Support for scaling back – or even eliminating – the tax increase had already bubbled up Monday, but to do that, legislators would likely have to find $8 million to cut out of Poloncarz’s proposal.
“There’s a process, and we get to review it now,” said Legislator Thomas A. Loughran, an Amherst Democrat. “The last place you want to look is raising taxes, so I think we’ll see what we can do.”
Poloncarz, a Democrat, has described his proposal as a “modest” tax increase that was necessary in order to avoid cuts to discretionary areas of the budget that he pledged to restore when he campaigned for office last year, including the libraries and aid to local cultural organizations.
“We heard from the public last year saying, ‘We demand these services,’ ” Poloncarz told reporters Monday.
The county executive said a number of financial pressures – including mandates for 35 new positions at the jails, increased costs of Medicaid and fringe benefits and a decline in the county’s tax base – have hit the county at once.
In addition to the tax increase, he has proposed cutting 63 mostly vacant jobs and using $5.4 million that is leftover from prior year budgets.
“We’re talking about 28 [fewer] jobs in Erie County government on Jan. 1, 2013, compared to Dec. 31, 2012,” Poloncarz said. “So if people think that we’re growing government because the budget went up, we’re not. The budget went up because of mandated services that we can’t control.”
Five legislators who make up the Republican caucus said they plan to put together their own budget amendments with the hope of eliminating the proposed tax increase. It takes six votes to pass a budget amendment in the 11-member Legislature.
“We are opposed to the direction this proposed budget takes this county,” said Minority Leader John J. Mills, an Orchard Park Republican. “People are struggling in this economy; we should be working to provide them financial relief, not asking them for more money.”
Other legislators said they wanted to hear back from residents in their district to see if they would support a tax increase in order to keep services such as parks, libraries and road patrols intact.
Those services – unlike larger expense items such as federally mandated social service programs – are the areas over which elected officials have the most control.
“They have to indicate to not just myself, but their representatives: Are they willing to pay to have those services?” said Legislator Lynn M. Marinelli, a Town of Tonawanda Democrat. “[Only] 10 percent of the margin of our budget is discretionary.”
Legislator Thomas J. Mazur, a Cheektowaga Democrat, said he believes that it will be difficult to find $8 million more to trim from Poloncarz’s proposal. He called the proposed tax increase “reasonable” if it spares libraries and other services.
“The county executive is very conservative when it comes to number-crunching,” Mazur said. “Right now, the other side of the aisle is posturing.”
Legislator Edward A Rath III, an Amherst Republican, disagreed.
“What I believe the residents of Erie County want,” Rath said, “is a smaller government – a government which has its employees doing more with less, so to speak, just like everyone else in Erie County.”