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County budget process laden with multiple booby traps

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarzís proposed 2013 budget is not so much about dollars and cents, but rather, maneuvering through numerous financial obligations and red tape that have nothing to do with providing services to taxpayers.

In his annual budget statement, Poloncarz wrote that the recommended general fund totals $1,384,970,457. This includes $326.3 million of sales tax that the county collects but is required to distribute to local governments, school districts and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

The recommended 2013 budget is $30 million, or 2.1 percent higher than the adjusted 2012 budget for the general fund totaling $1,355,012,870.

Poloncarz blames the increase on increased fringe benefits (which include health insurance and pension payments), state-mandated Medicaid payments (up by $8 million) and 33 new full-time positions in the Sheriffís Division of Jail Management (as directed by the state).

ďThus, the increase in the budget is being driven by state-mandated expenses out of the control of county management,Ē he said in the statement.

These increases are another layer of taxation on a government entity that has already poked its heads through the clouds high above the Rath Building.

What needs to be done is to decrease the countyís cost of the functions it does control.

Schools districts, towns and villages are just beginning to scratch the surface of shifting the cost of health insurance to their employees. While those in private sector face a nightmare of escalating costs each payday, well-entrenched unions hold fast to the unrealistic stance that they somehow deserve to have pay their way, or most of it.

No one wants to give up hard-earned benefits. However, new union contracts can be passed with significant health care benefit givebacks to slowly roll back the surge of this expense. Take a look at summer hours. Can this seasonal scenario be cut? Can the county raise the retirement age? Can some functions be outsourced?

The county executive states that his proposed budget deletes 63 positions, but other sources say these are mostly vacant jobs. Thus what looks on paper to be a cost-saving move (an overall reduction in salary and benefits) is a political trick as old as the Erie Canal. Both parties in county government have made use of it.

Poloncarzís proposed budget would increase the property tax rate per $1,000 from $5.03 to $5.21.

ďFor the average Erie County homeowner with a house assessed at $100,000, this means that county property taxes will increase $18 a year, or $1.50 per month, which is still among the lowest tax rates in New York State,Ē he wrote in a monthly column prepared for local community newspapers.

That extra $18 a year is not an isolated figure. In many towns in Erie County, tax rates will also see an increase next year. Waiting in the wings are village tax rates, school tax rates and the uncertain impact of the presidentís mandatory health care. Boasting that the administration is only snatching 18 bucks out of our pockets when it could have been more is like saying itís a good thing the Lusitania was not sold out the night it was sunk.

County government needs to start at the bottom and reduce the expenses that prevent it from doing even more for residents. The current funding for road repair is pegged to increase by $700,000. Yet our infrastructure is teetering on failure in many locations. The effects of a hard winter on county bridges and roads could dry up that increase should emergency work be required. That is the type of service to which county taxpayers from the cities to the suburbs are entitled.

Payments to Medicaid donít do anything to keep us safe, keep our roads in good repair or maintain our libraries. Yet about 98 percent of the annual county property tax bill funds it. The county executive needs to focus on his weekly personnel and benefit costs. Otherwise, that $18 increase next year will be simply another spin of a broken record.

(David F. Sherman a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of approximately 75,000 homes. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com)


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