The proposed 2014 budget presented by Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz appears – on first glance, at least – to combine toughness, opportunity and an understanding of what county residents want from their government.
The $1.39 billion spending plan is 1.1 percent higher than this year’s budget but would cause no increase in the property tax rate. Some property owners could end up paying more because of increased property assessments by towns and villages.
County residents have made clear that they want money for rodent control, libraries and cultural institutions, among other resources, and Poloncarz is following that lead.
In his small increase in library funding, Poloncarz made good on a pledge he made last year to give the library an increase proportional to any increase in the county’s property assessments.
That translates to a proposed increase of $415,000 in library funding this year, compared to an increase of $300,000 last year, in Poloncarz’s first budget.
Spending increases were driven mainly by increases in caseloads and expenses in welfare programs, increases in debt service and the cost of 12 new state-mandated jail management positions. In addition, labor costs have risen as the result of new union contracts that were unanimously approved by the Legislature.
The budget also makes good on the county’s decision to update Erie Community College’s North Campus, devoting some of the $5 million in ECC capital spending for work that will include development of the college’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs. That money will also benefit the college’s other two campuses.
The condition of the county’s infrastructure has received a lot of attention from this year’s County Legislature candidates, and not without reason. The budget provides “tens of millions of dollars” to improve roads and bridges around the county, and also looks for collaborative agreements with towns and villages for accomplishing that work.
The increase in spending isn’t funded solely through an increased tax levy. Poloncarz balances his budget by cutting a net 40 positions, delaying some pension payments and taking advantage of some one-shot revenue items. He is closing out $3.9 million in dormant capital accounts and employing a state program allowing the county to amortize 20 percent of its pension payment obligation.
He also uses $5.4 million in county surplus funds – the county’s “rainy day” account.
While County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw criticized that move, Poloncarz noted that the use of those funds had already been approved by the county control board as part of the county’s required four-year financial plan. The fund balance totals $88 million.
The budget is a dense document and, no doubt, there is more to learn about it. County legislators will soon have their chance to pull it apart – last year they eliminated a proposed $8.5 million tax increase – and we suspect they will want to make some changes again.
That’s as it should be, and while there is always room for improvement, the budget Poloncarz is sending them appears to be a responsible one that most county residents would support.