Months of work on the 2013 Erie County budget will come down to a vote today in which it appears likely that a majority of lawmakers will support a plan to cut $8.5 million to eliminate a proposed county tax increase.
That likelihood drew a stark warning Monday from County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz that he would be forced to implement a hiring freeze and consider rolling back spending on everything from auto bureaus to Erie Community College if the cuts go through.
“Folks, there will be no sacred cows,” Poloncarz told reporters ahead of today’s budget vote by the Erie County Legislature. “Everything will be on the table and everyone will have to share in the burden created if the legislators refuse to do the right thing.”
Poloncarz has sought for days to stave off the budget cuts to his proposed $1.38 billion spending plan, first sending top administrators to the Legislature to explain his budget projections and then on Monday offering a compromise to legislators during closed-door meetings.
But six legislators who oppose the proposed 3.4 percent tax increase appeared firm in their commitment Monday to push through the budget cuts when the 11-member Legislature meets this afternoon to consider changes to the budget.
“It’s too little too late,” Legislator Joseph C. Lorigo said of Poloncarz’s proposed compromise, which he and other legislators said offered $1.5 million in cuts. “It’s the first time they’ve reached out with something like that throughout this entire process, and it’s when their backs are up against the wall and they see that we’re going to eliminate the tax increase.
“Quite frankly, I’ve never seen people fight so hard to increase taxes.”
The six legislators crafted a package that spared popular county programs, but cut funding from fringe benefits, money set aside for potential legal settlements, jail and public works overtime and a social services program that provides aid to people who do not qualify for other welfare programs. It would also increase projections for the amount of money the county would save next year from vacant positions.
Poloncarz, however, has repeatedly warned that the cuts would underfund some expenses he can’t control, throwing his budget out of balance and potentially triggering a review by the county’s state-appointed control board.
“The vote the Legislature will take tomorrow is not a vote for or against the tax increase or for that matter quality-of-life programs,” Poloncarz said Monday afternoon. “But the vote that they will be casting is for or against an unbalanced budget and the possibility of a hard control board. The vote tomorrow is about whether the Legislature will create a multimillion-dollar hole in the 2013 budget.”
Poloncarz said he would be forced in January to make cuts to programs throughout county government, specifically naming rodent control, the highway division, large-scale projects, as well as funding for the Cornell Cooperative Extension, the Erie County Soil and Water Conservation District and cultural organizations.
County spending on the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system, however, could not be touched because all of its county funding next year is set aside as a separate tax revenue source.
“We will continue until we have found enough real cuts to make up the shortfall that could be created tomorrow in the 2013 budget,” Poloncarz said.
James Sampson, chairman of the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority, also told legislators that the control board has concerns over how the proposed cuts would impact the budget – including how jail overtime would be managed to stay within budget and how the county would meet additional projections for savings for vacant positions. The board last month found Poloncarz’s budget projections reasonable, but has identified potential “risk” factors in both Poloncarz’s proposed budget and the changes proposed by the legislators.
The stability authority operates currently in a “soft” advisory status, but its members could determine whether to remain advisory or increase its oversight to a “hard” control board if they find the budget is out of balance early next year.
“No one wants that latter option to happen,” Sampson said. “The county executive doesn’t. We don’t, and I’m sure the people and the Legislature don’t want to see the control board having to go hard again.”
The six legislators who support the budget cuts include members of the Legislature’s minority caucus and Legislator Thomas A. Loughran, an Amherst Democrat who opposes the proposed tax increase. As of Monday, they had enough votes to pass the proposed changes.
“There’s a majority; that’s consensus,” Loughran told Poloncarz administration officials Monday afternoon. “There’s no gridlock. So I just really think, tone it down. Let’s realize where we’re at, and out of a $1.4 billion budget, we’re talking about amendments. We’re making adjustments of $8.5 million out of $1.4 billion.”