The savings came. Now they're gone.
Amazingly, the 2013 budget the Legislature just approved to run its shrunken operation is actually more than it spent in 2011, the final year that this august body had 15 members.
Translation: Although the Legislature is 26 percent smaller, it will cost taxpayers $145,000 more to pay for it.
Democrat Thomas Loughran, who sponsored the downsizing bill with strong Republican backing, seemed surprised by this financial turn of events, saying, “That was not the idea.”
Civic activist Kevin Gaughan, who has led the local downsizing drive, was more than surprised.
“It's rather rare when I'm speechless,” Gaughan said, before recovering enough to call the development a perfect example of the “parallel universe” politicians function in.
“Voters could not have been more clear in their directive” to economize, not spend more, he said.
The Legislature did economize … a bit … temporarily.
In 2011, it cost $3.061 million for the 15 lawmakers, 32 full- and part-time staffers, offices, supplies and all of the other accoutrements of government.
That dropped to $2.962 million this year as the downsizing took effect.
But come Jan. 1, the Legislature budget will climb to $3.207 million, more than before the downsizing.
GOP chief of staff Bryan Fiume, noting his members' closed district offices, pointed to fringe benefit costs as the culprit, saying those totals almost exactly parallel the overall increase.
“It's the health care costs that went out of control,” he said.
Maybe that's because, while the Legislature cut four seats, the number of staffers is down by only three – from 32 to 29.
Loughran says the Legislature spent $7 million on itself a decade ago, when it had 17 members, “so this is definitely going in the right direction.”
But not when you reverse course. In fact, the prior economies just make the lack of savings this time all the more galling.
Nor is there much solace in Loughran's predictable defense: “This would be far worse if this was a 15-member Legislature.”
An exasperated Gaughan calls that explanation “unwittingly revealing of the culture” of local government.
“If anyone still doesn't know why we can't grow and create more jobs and become a functional community, they should look at that budget line,” he said.
Gaughan noted that voters in Alden and West Seneca last month rejected politicians' efforts to “upsize” boards back to their original size. He said the demand for savings couldn't be clearer.
In the context of a $1.37 billion county budget, we may not be talking about huge amounts of money. But we are talking about huge amounts of credibility.
We're talking about the ability of beleaguered taxpayers to believe that elected officials hear their cries and will grant more than cosmetic relief.
“I would hope that voters would remember this.” Gaughan said.
In fact, the next time legislators running for re-election brag about the downsizing, ask them what happened to the money.