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Erie County property taxes will go up, and jobs will be cut under a proposed budget that County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz plans to unveil today.
Poloncarz will ask county legislators to increase property taxes by 3.4 percent while making cuts throughout county government that will include 10 layoffs and the elimination of 53 vacant jobs to offset rising expenses and decreasing revenue.
Without the tax increase, Poloncarz said, the county would have had to severely cut back on services such as libraries, arts and cultural funding and sheriff’s road patrols to make up for an $8 million deficit that remained after his staff trimmed vacant jobs and other budget lines.
“If we were to try to do $8 million of additional job cuts, it would have destroyed county government as we know it,” Poloncarz said. “Of the services that we control, we would have had to cut into the Parks Department, which is already cut to the bone. We would have had to cut into the Highway Department.”
Instead, Poloncarz is proposing a $1.38 billion general fund budget that increases spending by 2.1 percent but relies on increased taxes, budget cuts and surplus funds to balance the plan without reducing several services that he made central to his campaign last year. The budget includes $326.3 million in sales tax revenue the county collects but passes on to local governments and schools.
“We’re going after strategic cuts,” Poloncarz said. “We’re going after it with a scalpel, not with a hatchet, like had been done in the past.”
Those cuts include 63 jobs, most of which are vacant, and expense lines such as travel or consulting that have gone unspent in recent years.
The cuts, however, weren’t enough to make up for a number of financial pressures facing the county, including:
• A requirement by the State Commission of Correction that the county add 33 jobs at the county jails next year as part of a plan to increase staffing levels by 2015. In addition, the county must add two mental health professionals under a settlement with the Department of Justice over the condition of the jails.
• Increased expenses for health care, pension and Medicaid payments.
• A loss of property tax revenue, as the assessed value of local properties decreased due to a number of large commercial property owners who have successfully challenged their tax assessments.
While Poloncarz spared the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library from budget cuts, he did not answer the call of a public campaign led by library system leaders for $3.6 million more for the libraries next year to restore hours and programs. Instead, Poloncarz has proposed a $300,000 increase for the library budget, bringing the total county support for the system to $22.2 million.
“We heard from the public,” Poloncarz said. “They said, ‘We want our libraries.’ We said, ‘We can’t give the libraries $25 million without destroying so many other services in county government.’ It’s just impossible, but we are giving them more money than we did last year.”
Poloncarz framed the proposed tax increase as a trade-off for keeping services such as libraries, arts and cultural funding, rodent control and road patrols in the budget. Of the roughly $1 billion the county spends each year, about 90 percent of it is on mandated services such as Medicaid and welfare programs, over which the county has little or no control.
“If we did not do the tax increase, because we’ve got $8 million to cut out of county government – we control only 10 percent of our budget, and it’s everything that we want – we would have seen library funding reduced,” Poloncarz said. “We would have seen arts and cultural funding reduced. We would have seen everything I talked about being cut.”
The county executive has proposed a tax rate of $5.21 for every $1,000 of the assessed value of a home. At that rate, homeowners with a house assessed at $100,000 would see their county property tax bill increase $18, to $521 – a tax increase the county executive describes as $1.50 per month for the owner of a $100,000 house.
“I think, if you ask people, ‘Can you afford $1.50 per month to ensure your libraries and all these things are funded?’ they would say yes,” Poloncarz said. “That’s what we’re asking the people of Erie County.”
The proposed increase in the county tax levy is within a state-imposed tax cap that went into effect last year.
In addition to the tax increase, Poloncarz’s proposal relies on $5.4 million of the county’s fund balance, or surplus funds left over from prior years’ budgets. The county currently has a surplus of about $83 million – money that was built up with the help of federal stimulus dollars over the last three years and that could be difficult to replenish once it is spent. Poloncarz said he hopes to wean the county budget off those funds by 2014.
The spending plan does not address the potential for new union contracts for county employees who are working under expired agreements. A proposal negotiated earlier this year with the county’s largest union, the Civil Service Employees Association, was voted down by its membership.
Poloncarz will also propose borrowing nearly $40 million for large-scale projects, including $5 million for building maintenance and equipment at Erie Community College, $2.6 million to renovate a closed county health clinic on Broadway in Buffalo, annual maintenance to Ralph Wilson Stadium required under the current lease and upgrades to roads, parks and other county-owned facilities, including the Botanical Gardens.
While Poloncarz has proposed a tax increase, the decision of whether to accept that proposal and the spending plan lies in the hands of county legislators. They will spend the next two months reviewing the document and proposing changes before the budget is finalized in December.
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SPENDING $1.38 BILLION
County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has proposed a $1.38 billion general fund budget for 2013. Here’s a look at how the money would be spent and how the budget would change from 2012, if county legislators approve it.
Personnel: $187.3 million 0.34 percent
Fringe benefits: $126.8 million 15.63 percent
Supplies and repairs: $9.7 million -0.67 percent
Sales tax distributed to local governments: $326.3 million 3.49 percent
Contractual expenses: $131.4 million 3.38 percent
Medicaid payments for ECMC: $16.2 million No change
Social services: $402.6 million 2.89 percent
Developmental and special education programs: $68.9 million 1.33 percent
Transfers to road fund, ECC and other funds: $40.2 million -3.25 percent
Debt payments: $54.6 million -12.79 percent
Other expenses: $20.9 million 2.98 percent
email: djgee@buffnews.com