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On its face, the $1.38 billion budget proposed this week by Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz looks acceptable. It makes cuts, restores critical funding and – unfortunately but perhaps necessarily – imposes a small tax increase.
But looks can be deceiving, and county legislators of both parties should be prepared to examine the spending plan closely and fairly to ensure that it corresponds with the county’s best interests. At the start, there are reasons to be both accepting and skeptical of the plan.
First of all, as Poloncarz takes pains to point out, the county controls only 10 percent of its budget. The remaining 90 percent represents a raft of mandated costs. The county has no choice but to pay them.
Poloncarz, a Democrat, campaigned on the need to restore library funding that had been cut by his predecessor, Chris Collins, and he did that. The plan returns the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library to $22.17 million, the same level it received in 2010 and, while it is significantly less than what the library sought, it represents at least a fair start. And more money for the libraries would require an even higher tax increase.
The county is also complying with new state and federal requirements on jail staffing and, because of an anomaly in this year’s calendar, will owe more to Medicaid than in most years. Other health care and pension costs are also rising even as the total assessed value of properties has declined because a number of large commercial property owners have successfully challenged their assessments.
Poloncarz’s point, which is undeniable, is that it is a challenging time in county government. Against those challenges, he plans to eliminate 63 positions – 53 vacant, 10 requiring layoffs – make other “strategic cuts” and use $5.4 million of the county’s $83 million fund balance.
But the plan also requires a 3.4 percent increase in property taxes in a state where property taxes are already exorbitant. Broadly speaking, it’s a manageable increase, amounting to an additional $18 a year for an average home assessed at $100,000.
That’s not a lot, but the economy is weak and many people are out of work, and those who are employed may not be receiving pay increases that would have helped to offset inflation in taxes and other expenses.
What is more, it is a time-tested strategy for county executives to raise taxes during their first year in office, getting the pain out of the way early enough that it may be forgotten when re-election time comes three years later. Indeed, that is exactly what the Republican Collins did in presenting his first budget.
Poloncarz says he foresees no need for additional tax increases for at least the next two years, and that may be because of this year’s tax increase and the potential that he is conservatively estimating the county’s sales tax revenue for next year.
But that forecast also doesn’t factor in the resolution of expired union contracts. The Civil Service Employees Association voted down a proposed contract earlier this year that would have increased the county’s costs in exchange for workers picking up 15 percent of their health insurance costs by 2016. The CSEA contract expired six years ago.
County legislators must examine this budget carefully. If they want to eliminate the tax increase, they need to show where those savings would come from, without endangering programs that are either important or broadly supported. If they want to be more generous with the library or other county patrons, they need to show how they would pay for those services without increasing taxes further.
And they need to ensure that the budget is sound: that revenue and expense projections are credible and that the plan doesn’t unnecessarily bank taxpayers’ money for no better reason than to make the politics easier for the next three years.