The $8.5 million package of budget cuts blasted as “phony budget gimmicks” by County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz certainly is politically motivated.
Having said that, the cuts adopted by Erie County Legislature Republicans plus one Democrat should not signal the need for “disaster management,” but simply good management to ensure the county remains on steady ground. In order of magnitude, the cuts amount to about one half of one percent of the overall budget.
In the short term, property owners may be pleased, since the cuts mean taxes won’t go up by 3.4 percent as had been proposed in Poloncarz’s $1.38 billion budget.
Still, the county control board, which retains advisory status on county financial matters, has concerns over the amended budget and its impact on the county’s four-year financial plan.
Removing the tax increase costs the county not just $8.5 million this fiscal year, but the same amount it would have raised each year for the three years after that. With inflation factored in, holding taxes steady will create a gap of $34.6 million at the end of the four-year plan.
The cuts that were made by the Republican minority, plus Amherst Democrat Thomas A. Loughran, craftily targeted budget areas below the radar of most voters rather than popular programs such as the libraries and cultural organizations.
The Legislature nearly eliminated money for the risk retention fund, which sets aside money to pay the county’s legal settlements, in addition to trimming the lines for fringe benefits, overtime in public works and the jails and a social services program that helps people who do not qualify for other welfare assistance.
The Legislature slashed that funding, but did nothing to trim spending in any of those areas., which are either mandated or are vital services. The spending for at least some of those lines will almost certainly exceed what the Legislature budgeted, and that money will have to come from somewhere else in the budget.
Poloncarz says he may have to take another look at popular programs such as parks, road repair and funding for arts and cultural programs. He will have to lock down accounts, manage turnover, freeze positions and watch every nickel and dime.
The county executive can’t do anything about the cuts, but he can veto the Legislature’s additions. And he has promised to do so, although that would save less than $200,000.
The Legislature will then get a chance to override the vetoes, and it should muster the votes to restore an important job Poloncarz wants cut. The director of grant accounting services in the Comptroller’s Office oversees tens of millions of dollars in grants and reimbursements, such as Social Services and health programs.
The rules for some grants and claims are complicated and often have to meet tight timetables. The director’s job is to make the process run smoothly. Any mistakes touch off a long, involved effort to restore funding.
Especially now with the state and federal governments trying to save money wherever possible, it’s extremely important that the claims and grants are all done properly so that the county doesn’t lose funding.
This has been a contentious budgeting process and it will be months before we know which side was right. If, as Poloncarz claims, the budget becomes out of balance, the Legislature will have to swallow its pride and work with the county executive to repair the damage.