Six Erie County lawmakers wiped out a proposed property tax increase Tuesday with an $8.5 million package of budget cuts that County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz decried as “phony budget gimmicks.”
A deeply divided County Legislature debated for more than four hours over what the county should spend in 2013 before finally shaving off enough money to eliminate a proposed 3.4 percent county property tax increase in Poloncarz’s proposed $1.38 billion budget.
“We provide oversight in this budget, and that’s what we’ve done,” said Legislator Thomas A. Loughran, an Amherst Democrat who delivered the swing vote needed to pass the budget cuts by a 6-5 vote. “We got this budget in October, and I found that some of my colleagues had no interest in eliminating a tax increase, and some of my colleagues did. We built a consensus.”
The budget cuts drew an immediate scolding from Poloncarz, who has contended for days that they would throw his budget out of balance and force him to look at other ways to scale back county spending. Poloncarz said he would immediately begin combing through areas of the budget that are not services mandated by state and federal governments to find what he called “real cuts.”
“I will fix it. I will do what’s necessary to ensure that the budget balances,” Poloncarz said after the Legislature’s budget meeting. “If they don’t want to act like adults, I will.”
The cuts approved by the Legislature come from a variety of spending lines – from money the county sets aside for legal settlements to overtime in county jails – but several lawmakers who opposed them warned that the effects of cutting those lines would ripple into popular programs.
“The money’s going to have to come from somewhere,” said Legislator Thomas J. Mazur, a Cheektowaga Democrat who voted against the cuts. “If we cut too much, too far, we’re going to be here week in and week out doing amendments, trying to find money.”
Several legislators who supported the budget cuts said they felt the Poloncarz administration had overestimated some budget lines, despite testimony from top Poloncarz administrators explaining the projections.
“I think that lines were overbudgeted,” said Kevin R. Hardwick, a City of Tonawanda Republican. “Am I 100 percent sure? Of course not. Some of them I’m closer to 50-50 than others, but I worry about the taxpayers. There are a lot of people out there hurting.”
Poloncarz proposed the tax increase to make up for a budget hole left after his top administrators cut spending, including 63 mostly vacant jobs, and used surplus funds to balance the 2013 budget. He has said he faced a “perfect storm” of rising expenses and declining revenue next year.
The proposed tax increase would have cost the owner of a property assessed at $100,000 an additional $18 next year. The Legislature’s vote Tuesday would scale that increase to zero.
Like the legislators, Poloncarz sought to avoid cutting popular programs such as parks, road repair and funding for arts and cultural programs. But he said Tuesday night that he might have to revisit that.
“It all comes down to arithmetic, and their numbers just don’t add up,” Poloncarz said of the $8.5 million budget cuts.
He also vowed to veto the $195,134 that county legislators added back into the budget Tuesday, which included funding for a job in the Comptroller’s Office that Poloncarz had targeted for deletion. Three of the items added to the budget – funding for the Amherst Symphony Orchestra, a youth program known as Operation Prime Time and overtime in the County Clerk’s Office – passed unanimously and could survive the county executive’s veto.
The six lawmakers who pushed through the spending cuts included Loughran and the five members of the Legislature’s minority caucus. They drew up the funding cuts from fringe benefit lines, money set aside for legal settlements and fees, overtime in public works and at the jails, and a social services program that helps people who do not qualify for other welfare assistance.
Legislator Timothy R. Hogues, a Buffalo Democrat who was among the legislators to oppose the cuts, called trimming from those areas a “gamble.”
“I think there will be some painful meetings in the year to come,” Hogues said. “I pray to God that you guys are right. I pray that we’re wrong, but from the information and the data that I see before us, I just can’t agree at this time.”