Governor Andrew Cuomo was in town on Tuesday, Dec. 4 to promote economic development. In his remarks, he stressed the negative impact our high property taxes have on our region. He said that the property tax cap he championed was an effort to rein in excessive government spending and put a lid on taxes. He also made it clear that local leaders should do everything in their power to keep taxes down. Later that afternoon, I and five of my colleagues in the Erie County Legislature did exactly that when we voted to eliminate the 3.4 percent property tax hike proposed by County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
We did so by making about $8.5 million in cuts to his proposed budget. These cuts do not affect the services that residents rely on such as libraries, roads or rodent control. Instead, we targeted areas we felt had been over budgeted by the county executive, such as overtime, fringe benefits and outside legal consultants. We also cut an approximately $3 million addition to the county’s risk retention fund. This is a fund used to pay for legal judgments and settlements stemming from lawsuits against the county. This will leave the fund with about $2 million to start the new year. The county executive has informed us that this will not be sufficient. Last year, however, County Executive-Elect Poloncarz recommended that we cut the same amount from this same account, even though everyone knew we would not have enough left to cover the $7 million needed for a major case that was being settled. We took his recommendation and voted for the cut because we knew there were other options for settlements. This was indeed the case, as we utilized surplus sales tax revenue to cover the lion’s share of that $7 million settlement. So we had no problem applying the same reasoning this year in our efforts to avoid a tax increase.
The county executive has chastised us for our cuts. He has called them irresponsible and suggested they could result in a fiscal crisis. He also noted that the 2005 Red and Green Budget crisis started several years earlier when county officials started using gimmicks to balance the budget. I am in total agreement with him on this latter point, although I disagree with his characterization of our cuts. I am very confident that the vast majority of our cuts are sound. The cost of being absolutely sure that our cuts did not go too deep would be an increase in taxes. This would be unacceptable at a time when too many of our neighbors are hurting. If we come up short in some lines, I am certain we can work with the executive to find money elsewhere in the budget. There may come a year when we have no alternative but to increase taxes. This is not that year.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.