There were mixed reactions among Erie County officials to the 2014 budget proposal released Tuesday by County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.
Most county lawmakers had time only to scan the 600-page document, but a few who did take a little closer look said they were pleased that the $1.39 billion proposal did not include a property tax rate increase.
“I’m encouraged, because we already had that fight last year,” said Legislator Edward A. Rath III, R-Amherst. “We showed that you can balance the budget without raising the property tax rate.”
On the other side of the aisle, Legislator Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, said she was highly supportive of what she knew of the county executive’s budget proposal.
“It reflects what the constituency would want from a spending plan, that being no tax increase and a little more of an investment in those discretionary areas, like funding for the libraries and the culturals,” Marinelli said.
Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant called the county executive’s proposal a manageable plan. The Buffalo Democrat added that she thinks it will have a lot of support in the Legislature.
“I have not talked to my colleagues across the aisle, but I think that because it does not propose a property tax increase, some of the more conservative Democrats will have no problem supporting it, as well,” Grant said.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw was heavily critical of the administration for proposing to use $5.4 million in surplus funds, which he called the county’s “rainy day account,” to help close what he cited as a $29.2 million gap in the budget.
“Let’s put it this way: It would be the height of irresponsibility for a family to use their savings account to pay recurring bills,” Mychajliw said at a news conference called 2½ hours after Poloncarz held one to outline his spending plan.
“When Mark Poloncarz was the comptroller, he issued many warnings about the fact that one-shot revenues, gimmicks and smoke-and-mirrors led to the red/green budget crisis. I agree with him. That’s exactly what happened. We don’t want Erie County to go down that path again,” Mychajliw said.
The comptroller also was critical of what he called a deficit-busting plan by Poloncarz to use the state’s pension-stabilization program to stave off immediately paying $8.6 million of the county’s estimated $40 million obligation to the state employee pension system in 2014.
“We’ve heard Republicans and Democrats say kicking the can on pension payments is not a way to balance budgets,” Mychajliw said.
Mark Cornell, a spokesman for the county executive, called Mychajliw’s assertions disingenuous. He accused Mychajliw, a Republican, of taking cheap political shots at the Democratic county executive in an election year for the comptroller. Mychajliw, who took office in January, is seeking re-election to a full four-year term against Democratic challenger Kevin P. Gaughan in the Nov. 5 general election.
“The comptroller fails to recall that in days leading up to the red/green budget crisis, we were talking about using the unassigned fund balance to close a budget gap that was hundreds of millions,” Cornell said.
“Unfortunately, we have a Legislature that refuses to increase recurring revenues to meet recurring costs. Until they are willing to increase revenues or actually cut real costs out of the budget, the administration is going to use creative and financially sound ways to ensure a balanced budget.”
The county currently has an unassigned fund balance of $88 million.
Mychajliw has been very vocal about the administration’s projections for sales tax revenue, which account for more than a quarter of the county’s budget. The growth in sales tax revenue has, so far, come in way under the administration’s initial projection rate of 3.5 percent, prompting the administration to reduce anticipated increases in sales tax revenues to 2.7 percent in 2014 through 2017.
Rath said he would like to have an explanation for the lowered projections.
“I think the county executive is being hypercautious,” he said, noting that the administration is projecting that the county will end the 2013 fiscal year with a $1.6 million surplus.