A member of the state board overseeing Erie County finances Friday asked County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz to try again on his proposed budget.
“On behalf of the taxpayers, I would ask you to go back,” said Brian Lipke, finance committee chairman for the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority. “I know you’ve done a very, very thorough job to get to where you are today, but I’d ask you to go back and see if there aren’t some more things that could be done to close that very narrow gap.”
Lipke urged Poloncarz to see if he and his staff could squeeze additional money out of the proposed $1.38 billion spending plan and eliminate a potential property tax increase.
“You’ve come very close to balancing the budget without a tax increase and that’s admirable,” Lipke told Poloncarz as the Fiscal Stability Authority’s finance committee kicked off its review of the budget. “But in this day in age, when we look around the world, around this country, every state in the union, probably every county and every city, everybody is facing the fact that our citizens in general – and this is a nationwide point right now – are overtaxed.”
Lipke, who said he was making a personal request rather than a formal directive from the committee, challenged county officials to find additional areas of discretionary spending that could be cut in order to spare taxpayers from a tax increase.
Poloncarz has proposed a $1.38 billion budget that relies on a 3.4 percent property tax increase, as well as job cuts and surplus funds, to balance spending as expenses increased and revenues decline.
Most of the spending increases, he said, are in areas over which the county has almost no control, such as Medicaid expenses and pension costs.
The county executive has described the proposed tax increase as necessary to maintain services such as libraries and aid to arts and cultural organizations during what he describes as a “perfect storm” of rising costs and a loss of revenue.
Robert W. Keating, Poloncarz’s budget director, said the proposal to increase taxes was made only after staff ruled out other ideas – such as using additional surplus funds – that would have made balancing future budgets more difficult.
“That was a last resort,” Keating told the committee. “The alternatives were bad.”
Not every member of the finance committee agreed with Lipke.
“I think our charge as a committee is to look at the budget to determine whether or not it’s balanced,” said fiscal stability authority member Louis J. Thomas, who is also a member of the finance committee. “I think after I go through this, I’m going to have some questions to ask that might answer that question.”
Lipke also sought to make it clear he was not criticizing the county executive’s efforts.
“I believe there was a very sincere effort made by the county executive and each member of his team in putting this budget together and trying to maintain a budget without having to raise taxes,” Lipke said. “I understand many of the issues that are driving the increase in expenses each year as a person in the business community who faces those issues each and every day.”
The stability authority will continue to review the 2013 proposal and the county’s four-year plan to determine if it is structurally sound. The full board is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. Oct. 26, in the Central Library in Buffalo.