The Erie County Legislature on Tuesday adopted a budget for the 2014 fiscal year that slightly increases discretionary spending – including aid to arts and cultural groups – while holding the line on property taxes.
The amended version of County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz’s $1.39 billion spending plan was passed in a 6-5 vote along party lines, with the Legislature’s five Republicans all voting against it. While they praised the budget’s lack of a tax increase, lawmakers in the minority caucus cited their objection to the plan’s reliance on deferring $8.6 million in state pension payments in 2014 as a budget-balancing tool.
“What we are doing is kicking the can down the road when it comes to our pension costs, and I think this is fiscally irresponsible … because we have the money to pay for this cost, but we’re choosing to borrow,” said Legislator Edward Rath, R-Amherst.
Two weeks ago, the Legislature’s current Democratic majority voted in favor of authorizing Poloncarz to take advantage of a state pension-stabilization program that allows the county to pay about $32 million of its estimated $40 million state pension bill next year. The remaining $8.6 million would be amortized at a low interest rate over the next 10 years.
Twelve other counties and 177 local governments in the state have already taken advantage of the program.
“In the past, Erie County has been a member of, I would say, an exclusive club of counties that has not participated in pension stabilization funding,” Rath said.
“We were proud that we had the resources, we had the fiscal management, and we had the capacity to every single year pay for our pension obligations without having to borrow from the state,” he added.
Legislator Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, and other Democrats called the plan fiscally prudent, given anticipated increases in overtime costs and other deficit drivers in next year’s budget. Marinelli also defended Democrats’ support of the county’s participation in the pension-stabilization program, with the immediate $8.6 million savings possibly used to help close a projected $29.2 million hole in the 2014 budget.
“The administration has testified that they will use that as a very last resort. So it doesn’t necessarily mean it is going to happen. But, without it, there would have to have been $8.6 million extracted from this budget,” Marinelli said.
Last week, during a meeting of the Legislature’s Budget Committee, GOP-aligned lawmakers introduced a series of amendments designed to trim $8.6 million from Poloncarz’s budget proposal.
The amendments were defeated by majority Democrats in the committee.
The Democrats passed their own plan to shift $467,239 in expenditures to cover the cost of some added jobs and increased aid to cultural agencies. The retooling – which was approved, 6-5, along party lines Tuesday – neither adds to nor takes away from the overall $1.39 billion budget as originally proposed by Poloncarz.
“This is, as I noted last week, one of the most minimal changes made to a county’s budget in a long time,” Marinelli said Tuesday.