Erie County’s budget battle came down to spending lines to which most residents don’t give much thought: risk retention, turnover accounts, fringe benefits, safety net assistance.
But the $8.5 million the County Legislature trimmed from the 2013 budget to erase a proposed property tax increase unleashed a passionate debate over how it would affect the county’s future.
County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has called the cuts a “gimmick” and compared them to decisions made in the years that led up to the county’s infamous “red-green” budget crisis in 2004. Legislators who stood behind the cuts for 2013 labeled Poloncarz’s remarks “scare tactics” and said he was making “idle threats” to scale back on popular county programs.
All this talk leaves the question: What does it mean for the county?
The answer likely won’t be clear for months, when the county works its way through the 2013 budget. But early next year, Poloncarz will have to submit a new four-year plan to the state-appointed control board that oversees the county’s finances. Whether it believes those numbers are in balance will determine if the board will shift from its current advisory status into a “hard” control board that can exert greater influence over how the county spends its money.
“No one wants that latter option to happen,” James Sampson, chairman of the control board, or the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority, told legislators this week. “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.”
But before the four-year plan is revised, Poloncarz has said he plans to return to the 2013 budget to find other areas to trim since he believes the Legislature’s cuts will create an unbalanced budget.
“I can accept that we have different opinions on how we should spend our finite resources,” Poloncarz said after the budget passed. “But I cannot accept a difference in facts on what we have to pay and what we don’t.”
Nothing, he said, is off the table. But to transfer funds to different accounts, he will need a majority of legislators to agree – support he was unable to get to pass his proposed tax increase.
“Everything that he put in that budget, for culturals, for libraries, for rodent control, sheriff’s road patrols, roads and bridges, that’s all staying there,” said Legislator Joseph C. Lorigo, a West Seneca Conservative, one of six lawmakers who voted for the cuts. “We have no intention of shifting that money around.”
Here are some of the major items stripped from Poloncarz’s budget:
• Risk retention: The county sets aside money every year for legal settlements and legal fees. Poloncarz proposed putting $3 million into that fund next year. The Legislature cut that to $69,498, but there could be money left over this year. County Attorney Michael A. Siragusa estimated that the county will have between $1.7 million and $1.8 million left this year that could be rolled over at the beginning of the year.
A large settlement, however, could push legal expenses over budget, forcing the county to dip into surplus funds or bond for a judgment. The county has spent an average of $3.8 million from the fund during the last six years, according to the Comptroller’s Office.
• Overtime: The Legislature trimmed $812,750 from sheriff’s overtime for the county jails – a budget line that has been between $2.6 million and $4.5 million over budget during the last two years. Poloncarz, in his budget proposal, did not account for the extra money consistently spent on jail overtime – a decision the control board called a “significant risk.” It called the Legislature’s additional reductions “risky.”
The state has mandated that the county fill 15 new jail jobs this year and 30 new positions next year to alleviate overtime. Sheriff Timothy Howard hopes those staffing additions will reduce overtime. He also expects other changes in the way the Holding Center is operated to help lower the overtime expense.
“I’ve told them there are a lot of variables here that no one can predict,” Howard said. “It’s not unreasonable for them to be going the way we’re going, but at the same time, that’s why we have midyear budget hearings.”
• Turnover: The county budgets each year for savings it expects from vacant positions. Poloncarz budgeted $600,000 in savings next year – an amount the control board called “achievable and conservative,” while noting that its calculations of actual vacancy savings in recent years has been a “multiple” of that amount. The Legislature estimated the savings would be $1.78 million next year.
The Poloncarz administration calculates that the savings this year is $544,511, and budget officials have said it would be difficult to increase that number next year.
The difference between the control board’s calculations and the county administration’s calculations is that the county reduces the savings by the amount of overtime it uses to make up for vacant positions, said Deputy Budget Director Timothy Callan.
• Safety net: The county is required to provide Safety Net Assistance, a program that helps people in need who do not qualify for other types of welfare. Poloncarz had budgeted the amount for that program next year to increase 8 percent to $44.6 million. The Legislature reduced the increase by about half, leaving $42.7 million.
The Poloncarz administration says the county has seen 90 new cases per month during the last six months, as well as higher county expenses for the program. “The problem for us is the Legislature on paper cut the appropriation,” Callan said. “And we’re still going to incur the expense.”
Legislators who supported the cuts point to budget reports that show the amount spent on the program through September has been under budget.
“I believe there’s more than enough money in the budget, even with the cut that we are making,” said Legislator Kevin R. Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda, who voted for the cuts. “I think these people will be served. There are other people out there who pay taxes in Erie County who are hanging onto their homes.”