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December 2011 Column - County budget reminds me of classic Dickens’ tales


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oneilj - Posted on 21 December 2011

Hardly a day goes by when the television doesn’t play someone’s adaption of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Whether played by George C. Scott, Bill Murray, Oscar the Grouch or Mr. Magoo, Scrooge is everywhere. As I reflect on the 2012 Erie County Budget, however, I cannot help but think about another of Dickens’ classics.

Dickens begins “A Tale of Two Cities” with the unforgettable phrase “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” In many ways this pretty much sums up my feelings about the budget for which I recently voted.

It was certainly the best of times in many ways. We were able to move money around in the budget submitted before the election by outgoing County Executive Chris Collins to address the priorities of incoming executive Mark Poloncarz.

In so doing, we restored the county’s rodent control program and funded a variety of cultural organizations. We also restored several positions to the comptroller’s office and gave assistant district attorneys their first cost of living increases in a decade. Most importantly, we were able to accomplish all this without increasing the county’s property tax rate. So it did indeed feel like the best of times.

For some, though, it is the worst of times. This is because the budget we passed still eliminates about 200 positions. Although most of these are currently vacant, about 50 hardworking county employees will lose their jobs on Jan. 1. Many of these are data entry operators whose job cuts can be traced to our increasing reliance on technology. This is a scenario all too familiar to those of us who have worked in the private sector.

When I started my job at Canisius College in 1989, the college maintained a secretarial pool to do much of the typing for professors and administrators. Those positions are long gone. So, too, are the medical transcriptionists who once typed the notes my doctor dictated into his recorder. Now he types his own notes into his laptop computer as he talks to me.

It is never cause for celebration when someone loses a job, regardless of whether it is in the private or public sector. But if we are to keep the lid on county property taxes, we must continue to eliminate positions rendered obsolete by technolo gy.

This calls to mind another Dickens masterpiece, as without future cuts we will not be able to sustain the services currently offered by the county and our great expectations will be dashed. 

If you have thoughts you would like to share, I would love to hear from you. I can be contacted by phone at 858-8672 or via email at kevin.hardwick@erie.gov