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April 2012 Column - Revisions necessary to four-year plan to best reflect needs of taxpayers


OFFICE HIGHLIGHTS

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As a rule, predicting exactly what will happen down the road is impossible. But each year, through analysis of trends and forecasting changes in the economy, the County’s Executive and Legislative Branches predict expenditures and revenues to create an annual budget reflecting what is anticipated in the coming year. In addition, the County Executive creates a four-year plan, predicting which expenses or revenue will grow and which won’t in order for the county to best prepare its long-range goals. This is especially important in dealing with large projects, such as reconstruction of roadways and bridges that can cost millions of dollars.

 

The past few years saw a reduction in the county workforce, a growth in surplus and the elimination of long-term debt – all positive changes for the taxpayers. This allowed the county to maintain its operating budget, while providing sound financial planning for the capital budget.

 

As the new County Executive, Mark Poloncarz recently applied his foresight into a four-year plan. While the basic information discussed in the proposal appears straightforward and balanced, the plan seems to lack pertinent details that could have major bearing on the county’s economic future. For starters, the plan calls for $5.4 million of reserves to be used in 2013 without explanation as to where the money will be used. Dipping into reserves for reoccurring expenses would rapidly deplete the savings previously built through cost-cutting initiatives. The plan should outline exactly why these funds are being used.

 

Also missing is an increase reflecting union contract settlements. One would reason that settling the seven contracts (some that expired more than five years ago) will cost taxpayers a significant amount in retroactive wage increases. According to one report, the county’s payroll for CSEA members is currently $120 million, so even a small increase will take a toll on the county’s bottom line.

 

The plan to remove only 50 county jobs through attrition should also cause taxpayers pause.  The main concern is that pension and health insurance costs surpass $83 million a year. Erie County is one of the area’s largest employers and maintaining an excessive workforce is a large burden on all taxpayers who not only pay public employees’ salaries, but benefits as well.

 

Reducing the county workforce by only 50 employees over four years, while being mindful of the jobs added back into the 2012 budget, leaves the county workforce larger then it was at the end of 2011.  In addition, the county executive’s plan assumes every retiree is a position that does not need to be replaced.  In my opinion, that is flawed thinking.  Some positions in government are mandatory and the county executive can’t control who files for retirement and when. The plan needs a real solution that will decrease the taxpayers’ responsibility for paying public sector pensions. The 2012 pension cost for Erie County is $34,052,515; which amounts to 19 percent of the county payroll.  In 2008, the cost of medical insurance was $46,499,000.  Health Insurance costs in 2012 are $53,486,881 – a 15 percent increase - substantially more than the 5 percent projection in the county executive’s plan. Health insurance should not be projected to decrease.

 

To best reflect the needs of taxpayers, aspects of the four-year plan should be altered and explained in greater detail.