Members of a state board overseeing Erie County’s finances told the county’s elected officials Tuesday that they will need to cooperate better to reduce $25 million in budget gaps predicted for the next four years.
The four-member Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority will remain in advisory status, but urged county officials to work together to find “realistic, implementable gap closers” to address budget shortfalls that County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has forecast in the county’s latest four-year plan.
“We believe the $25 million gap is real and must be addressed sooner rather than later,” said Brian J. Lipke, chairman of the authority’s finance committee.
The control board’s review of the county’s four-year plan expressed concern that “for the first time in years the county is facing substantial, real out-year gaps in its financial plan that may be exacerbated by 2013 potential budget shortfalls” but found that the county could balance the budget with cooperative efforts.
Among the board’s concerns are the potential for sales tax revenue to grow slower than expected, the county’s ability to control overtime costs and whether the county has set aside enough money in a fund for legal settlements and bills.
“Despite all of these concerns, we believe that with cooperation, ingenuity and foresight amongst the county’s elected officials – that we have not seen so far unfortunately – that the county can, in fact, balance its budgets through 2016, the final year of the financial plan,” Lipke said.
Poloncarz submitted a new four-year plan to the stability authority earlier this month that calls for trimming jobs through attrition, scaling back on borrowing for large projects and dipping into the county’s surplus to balance the budget during the next four years. But, he warned, this won’t be enough to close budget gaps that his staff forecasts through 2016.
The county executive told the stability authority that he plans to meet with county legislators throughout the year to gauge their willingness to either increase taxes or cut spending to make up for the budget shortfalls, as expenses rise faster than revenue. He presented a list of options such as reducing funding for libraries, parks and roads, but he will not likely publicly recommend specific actions until later this year as he prepares next year’s budget.
“If there’s only one thing that people take away from this meeting today, in terms of advice, it is that we’re looking for the county officials to work cooperatively to identify realistic, implementable gap closers through various means to close potential shortfalls without overburdening tax payers or jeopardizing county services,” Lipke said.
Also Tuesday, the stability authority authorized up to $39 million in capital borrowing on behalf of the county this year to fund big projects that county officials included in the 2013 budget, such as road reconstruction, park upgrades and renovation of a closed health clinic on Broadway. In addition to the new borrowing, board members agreed to refinance an estimated $32 million in old county bonds to reduce interest costs.
Deputy Budget Director Timothy C. Callan told the control board that he expects county officials to ask it to approve additional borrowing later this year for a portion of the $40 million the county has agreed to spend toward a $130 million renovation of Ralph Wilson Stadium.