A parade of Erie County department heads appeared during three days of midyear budget hearings this week, and the refrain from most is that they are doing more with less.
Emergency Services Commissioner Daniel Neaverth Jr., who was among eight department officials scheduled to testify Wednesday before the Legislature’s Finance and Management Committee, even uttered the phrase “less is more” as he talked about how his department, half of which is fully funded by state and federal grants, was handling fiscal constraints looming on the horizon.
“I’m happy to report that our efforts to secure grants throughout the course of the year, including infrastructure grants as well as the state Homeland Security, keep us humming along,” Neaverth said.
After this year, however, he won’t be able to rely on automatic extensions of those grants, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency attempts to clamp down on abuses nationwide.
“So now that they’re bringing everybody back in line, we’re actually doing more real-time budgeting for equipment and needs and leases and things like that,” said Neaverth, who added that his department has come in under budget for the first six months of the year.
Across the board, department heads detailed their pursuit of savings by leaving vacant positions in their departments unfilled.
However, when Maria Whyte, environment and planning commissioner, came before the Legislature Wednesday, lawmakers were prodded into a debate over the efficacy of how the administration decides to use scarce county resources.
The catalyst for that was County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz’s announcement this week that $500,000 in county funds have been earmarked for ongoing restoration work at the Darwin Martin House.
“Just earlier this week, our budget hearings were delayed for a press conference where the county was investing $500,000 on the Darwin Martin House,” said Legislator Joseph C. Lorigo, a Conservative from West Seneca.
“I, personally, am starting to wonder if that money could be better spent elsewhere,” said Lorigo, adding that since 1996, over $25 million in public funds have been spent on the facility.
Amherst Legislator Thomas Loughran and Legislator Lynn Marinelli of the Town of Tonawanda, both Democrats, defended the expenditure as a prudent investment. Marinelli said the county has a long history of providing funds to noncounty operations that help boost the economic fortunes of the county. The Martin house is owned by the state.
“Shea’s Buffalo … had said ‘give us $250,000 to expand our stage and we won’t ask for operating funds again.’ They expanded and now we’re getting the stuff that was only going to Toronto from Broadway. Now we’re bringing in the Broadway shows, and bringing in the people and they’re selling out and we’re getting sales tax dollars,” Marinelli said.
Legislator Kevin Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda, said that while he supported the Darwin Martin House, he questioned whether such projects ought to get funding at the expense of other projects, such as road repairs.