A top budget official for County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz brought this message to the Erie County Legislature on Tuesday: If you want to eliminate a proposed tax increase, it’s going to have to come out of popular programs such as parks, libraries, or road and bridge repair.
Deputy Budget Director Timothy C. Callan warned county legislators that the Poloncarz administration believes there is little room in the budget to cut outside of $102 million of county spending that is not mandated by state and federal governments.
Those areas, he said, include some of the most popular services – including libraries, funding for cultural organizations, road repair, sheriff’s road patrols and police services, parks and senior services.
“You’ll be forced to take a hard look at the nonmandated sections of the budget, the services that the public very clearly wants,” Callan told members of the Legislature’s Finance, Management and Budget Committee on Tuesday as they opened a series of hearings on Poloncarz’s 2013 proposed budget.
The message came as legislators begin the hard work of picking through a $1.38 billion budget plan that would trim jobs and raise county property taxes by 3.4 percent next year to help offset declining revenue and increasing expenses. That tax increase will help plug a budget hole left after the county executive’s staff made cuts, used surplus funds and took other measures to balance the budget.
“None of us took this decision lightly on proposing this revenue increase, this tax,” Callan said. “This was the last option after we did everything else.”
Several county legislators have said they hope to eliminate the proposed tax increase before the Legislature finalizes the spending plan in early December. To do that, however, they’ll have to identify more than $8 million in spending they are willing to cut.
Legislator Kevin R. Hardwick, a City of Tonawanda Republican, questioned the suggestion that budget cuts will have to come entirely from areas that aren’t programs mandated by the state and federal governments.
“I guess I just reject the notion that these are the only places we can save money,” Hardwick said. “There are places that we should be looking. We owe it to our constituents to look, and mandated services, the service is mandated, but the level of cost is not necessarily mandated.”
The message legislators heard from county department heads on Tuesday was that cuts already proposed in the budget will be felt.
The county has chosen to end a pilot program next year that provided weekend meals for senior citizens because of rising costs and decreasing aid, and officials in the Department of Senior Services told legislators they are concerned that deeper funding cuts might be coming from the state and federal government next year that could significantly impact nutrition programs for senior citizens.
“Basically, none of our services are mandated. It’s just something that, obviously because one in six in our community is a senior, it’s something that the county has a mission to take care of,” Commissioner of Senior Services Ellen E. Grant told legislators. “As the dollars don’t come in, we’ll have to look at putting a cap on the number of seniors that can be served at some point.”
Commissioners for the Board of Elections told legislators they are concerned about a proposal to cut elections personnel by 13 percent next year.
“We’re attempting at this point to continue to decrease the expenses as best that we can,” said Democratic Elections Commissioner Dennis E. Ward. “Everybody has to do that at this point, and we don’t believe that we’re any different than anybody else. We have to be careful with the taxpayers’ money. Having said that, here we are with a budget decrease.”
Of the county executive’s $1.38 billion budget, $903 million is spent on programs that are required by the state and federal governments, compared with $102 million spent in other areas over which the county has more control, according to his staff. The remaining portion of the budget is sales tax that is passed on to local towns, villages and school districts.
Some areas of nonmandated services include jobs within the county executive’s office, the Legislature and the Comptroller’s Office.
Several legislators on Tuesday questioned why Poloncarz has targeted for elimination a top job within the Comptroller’s Office that is held by former Budget Director Gregory Gach. Gach was the budget director under former County Executive Chris Collins. He was replaced by Poloncarz in January and is now the director of grant accounting services in the Comptroller’s Office.
Comptroller David J. Shenk, who will leave the office in January after losing the election last week, told legislators he believes the $93,987 job is needed.
“It is an important position, and I don’t really think it could be cut,” Shenk said. “I just don’t see there is much fat in the Comptroller’s Office.”
Poloncarz, as county comptroller, last year fought against job cuts within that office proposed at the time by Collins. Now, Callan said, Poloncarz believes the job is no longer necessary.
“We believe this position can be very adequately handled by the deputy comptroller,” Callan said.