Fear and Self Loathing in the Rath Building The bad news is, the County is fiscally sound By Peter Livingston

I returned from vacation today eager to catch up on news from around Western New York. There was a surprising amount of news coming from Erie County government. They held meetings this week to discuss status of the budget half way through the year. County Executive Poloncarz reported that there were deficits in the Safety Net program, which provides benefits for long-term welfare recipients who do not have children. He also noted concerns with certain overtime accounts and fringe benefits. Along with all of this good news, there was some bad news. The county is running a $673,000 surplus half-way through the year. That translates to a $1.3 million surplus for the year.

Last October, County Executive Poloncarz submitted a budget to the legislature that called for a tax increase. He insisted that his proposed budget was extremely lean and that any cuts would be irresponsible. Even though the increase at 3.4 percent was above the Governor's 2 percent growth cap, the County Executive cited exceptions to the cap to justify the increase. He was dismayed when a group of three Republicans, one Democrat, one Conservative and an Independence Party member had the audacity to adjust the budget to avoid a tax increase. He called their cuts to Safety Net, overtime and fringe benefits irresponsible and huffed that the legislators were childish. He warned of the impending demise of Erie County. Although he did not get the tax increase for which he yearned, he seemed happy to embrace the role of Eschatologist-in-Chief.

The County Executive has spent the last six months blaming the six legislators for every problem in Erie County. When he couldn't come up with a contract acceptable to his largest union, it was partly because the legislature cut the Safety Net line. When he refused to borrow to fund capital projects which he himself proposed, it was partly because the legislature cut fringe benefits lines. If a road was crumbling, it was because the legislature cut overtime in the Sheriff's Office.

There was a bounce in the County Executive's step and a gleam in his eye that was previously only seen when he discussed the red-green budget and the incompetent legislators who caused it.

Given his level of rhetoric over the past nine months, the County Executive must have had mixed emotions this week. He could point to deficits in the Safety Net account, although that hole may have been caused by higher than anticipated unemployment in Erie County, which exceeds the national average and which he campaigned on lowering. He cited problems with the Sheriff's overtime, although that claim may not be accurate. He could claim that he was vindicated, which seems more important to him than having the county fiscally healthy. But running a surplus must have really thrown him for a loop. It doesn't seem like he views this as good news. While most County Executive's would be proud to proclaim a surplus, County Poloncarz seems to whisper it. It is as if he has disappointed himself.

I am sure that the County Executive won't change his talking points in the next five months, even though his warnings of fiscal collapse are unfounded. He will not stop until the taxpayers of Erie County are saddled with the property tax increase he feels that they deserve. However, there are a few questions I would like to ask the County Executive if I was a legislator this week.

County Executive Poloncarz, the legislature cut your proposed 2013 budget $8.5 million to avoid a property tax increase. You claim that you were correct about the legislature's cuts being faulty, because Safety Net and overtime are exceeding budget. (I do not know from reading the news how much these accounts are claimed to be off, but for the sake of making my example cleaner, I will assume the amount that these accounts are off $100,000, which translates to $200,000 for the year. I would bet that the County Executive would claim that the number is higher.) Erie County is on pace for a surplus of $1.3 million for the year.

Adding these numbers together, you were off $10 million in your proposed budget, of which you wanted taxpayers to pay $8.5 million. Why were you so far off in your proposed budget? Was it accidental or did you really just want to increase taxes that badly? Why should anyone believe you when you inevitably demand a tax increase again this year? Why should anyone believe you on anything?"

Maybe the legislators will be kind enough to ask those questions for me during their call-backs of administration officials on Friday. I doubt it. Friday appears to be their last meeting until September. They will probably have summer vacation on their minds. Rest up legislators! I think you will need all the energy you can muster when the County Executive fabricates his 2014 budget in September. The taxpayers will be watching.

Comments? Please email me at peter.r.livingston@gmail.com. I also occasionally comment on Twitter @PRLivingston.

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