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Sherman Says: The Erie County budget process is laden with multiple booby traps

ERIE COUNTY — Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s proposed 2013 budget is not so much about dollars and cents, but rather about 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 worth of sales tax that the county collects, but is required to distribute to local governments, school districts and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

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

Poloncarz blamed the increase on increased fringe benefits, including health insurance and pension payments, state-mandated Medicaid payments – up by $8 million – and 33 new, full-time positions in the sheriff’s division of jail management, as directed by the state.

“Thus, the increase in the budget is being driven by state-mandated expenses, out of the control of county management,” he said.

These increases are another layer of taxation on a government entity that has already poked its head through clouds high above its Rath Building headquarters. What should be decreased is the county’s cost of the functions it does control.

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

No one wants to give up hard-earned benefits, but 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?

Poloncarz said that his proposed budget deletes 63 positions, but other sources say these are mostly already 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.

Poloncarz’s proposed budget would increase the property tax rate per $1,000, from $5.03 – $5.21.

“For 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,” he said.

That extra $18 per year is not an isolated figure. In many towns in Erie County, tax rates will also see an increase, next year. Village and school tax rates and the uncertain impact of the president’s mandatory health care plan are waiting in the wings. Boasting that the administration is snatching only $18 out of our pockets, when it could have been more, is like saying that it is a good thing the Lusitania was not sold out, the night it 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 do not do anything to keep us safe, keep our roads in good repair or maintain our libraries. Yet, approximately 98 percent of the annual county property tax bill funds that offering. Poloncarz 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 Sherman is the managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York.

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