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Erie County executive releases 2014 budget

BUFFALO — Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has unveiled his fiscal year 2014 proposed Erie County Budget, which holds the line on property taxes, includes investments in infrastructure, economic and workforce development initiatives, cultural and tourism programs, libraries and health and social service initiatives, among others. The budget affects many facets of life in Erie County, and local officials weighed in on what it means for residents south of the city.

According to Springville Mayor William Krebs, the budget will “directly affect the quality of life in Springville,” including parks, social services, highways and bridges, public safety and cultural tourism. But Concord Town Supervisor Gary Eppolito said he is cautiously optimistic about the way the budget is balanced, and how it will affect the future finances of the county, in the long run.

“The 2014 proposed budget addresses the significant needs of our community, at a time when Erie County faces tremendous opportunities, along with fiscal burdens,” said Poloncarz, in a statement.

“This document underscores my administration’s commitment to providing the services that taxpayers demand, reaffirms our promise to invest in and enhance the programs I identified as necessary initiatives for a smart economy and highlights our ability to hold the line on property taxes, despite increases in state-mandated expenses and declines in revenue. Careful stewardship of taxpayer dollars and close scrutiny of spending has resulted in a proposed budget that recognizes and copes with our economic realities, while also making targeted investments, building toward a stronger future for Erie County.”

The budget will provide additional operating funds for the Buffalo Convention Center and Visit Buffalo-Niagara, new funding for the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission-WNED to support cultural tourism and development and $500,000 in new capital funds for a needs analysis of the convention center.

The Western New York Southtowns Scenic Byway recently joined with Visit Buffalo-Niagara, to publicize the sights and scenes in southern suburbs, including Springville, Colden, Boston and others. Additional funding for that organization may trickle down to help promote tourism in those regions.

Additionally, the budget designates nearly $68,000 in new funding for cultural organizations; allocates $2 million for brownfield redevelopment in Erie County, in addition to providing new funding for workforce development initiatives and summits; provides $100,000 in new funding for the creation of a new Greater Toronto-area economic development office to assist Canadian and foreign companies to locate businesses and industries in Erie County, such as the Welded Tube investment in Lackawanna; provides $5 million for work at Erie Community College to bolster science, technology, engineering and mathematics and creates the position of energy officer for the Erie County government.

Krebs said that the aid to redevelop brownfields and incentivize foreign investment will “create new wealth in the county by reusing our industrial sites and taking advantage of our geographical location on the Great Lakes.

Poloncarz agreed. “With these initiatives, we are leveraging existing resources and partnerships to build capacity in areas that will be critical to the county’s future growth. By carefully targeting investments and wisely using available funds, Erie County will function as the lead agency in creating a more vibrant local economy,” Poloncarz said.

County services that received funding include a reinvestment in the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system, that adds $415,867 in new operating funding and $250,000 in new capital funding for the purchase of a new bookmobile; $2 million in 2014 funding, pursuant to the $1 million in 2013 funding, for the rehabilitation of greenhouses at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens; more than $36 million for operating and infrastructure investments on highways, roads and bridges throughout Erie County; increases in spending on infrastructure repairs and renovations at Erie County parks and the creation of three new positions in the Erie County Department of Health, to administer cancer screening programs for under- and uninsured county residents.

While Eppolito said he was encouraged by word of those increases, he was wary about how it would be enacted.

“I think it’s great they want to increase that funding,” the supervisor said. “But how it shakes out, in real time, might be a different story.”

The almost $1.392 billion general fund in the proposed budget represents a 1.1 percent increase in spending over fiscal year 2013, which, as in most years, is driven primarily by state and federal mandated expenses.

According to Poloncarz, the largest factors behind the increase are increases in the caseloads and expense of the New York State Constitutional Safety Net Program; an increase in debt service obligations; new positions required by NYS to be added to the Sheriff’s Division of Jail Management; increases in personal services expense, as a result of union contracts settled in 2012 and 2013 and spending for correctional health services, mandated by the federal government.

“I am sure the budget deliberations in the county will reveal disagreements about the effectiveness of the line items,” Krebs added, about where the money is coming from to fund those programs.

The property tax rate per thousand will remain at $5.03 and there will be $4.4 million in additional revenue, due to assessment growth, of which the libraries will get $415,000.

Sales tax revenue is projected to grow at 2.75 percent and there will be a net reduction of 40 positions, across county government.

The initial estimates for the 2014 proposed budget revealed a $29.2 million gap, which was reduced to $17.9 million, by using $5.4 million fund balance, which was previously approved by the control board; $3.9 million recovered from the closing of dormant capital accounts and $8.6 million in savings, by taking advantage of the 2010 NYS Employer Contribution Stabilization Program.

Eppolito said that, while he is happy there is no increase in the tax rate, he is “very concerned” about the county’s dipping into the fund balance.

“The [fund balance] is sort of like a rainy day fund,” Eppolito explained. “Think of your house. If your water bill comes in every month, you’re hopefully budgeting for that, and not dipping into your savings to pay for it. If your water tank blows up, that’s where you spend that rainy day fund. With the county dipping into the fund balance, that’s the same thing. If you spend that down, you’ve got a problem.”

Eppolito added that, in the municipality he governs, if the town of Concord finds itself with extra money in the fund balance at the end of a fiscal year, it can use that to offset taxes for the next one.

“That’s fine, if you don’t need it,” he said. “But if the projected sales tax doesn’t come in the way [Poloncarz] expects, you’re sort of kicking the can down the road.”


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