Today the Erie County Legislature voted 8-2 to oppose the creation of a new special taxing district to fund the libraries. The resolution was expected to pass unanimously, but to many Republicans' surprise, Legislator Kevin Hardwick flipped to back the new tax.
(Democrat Pat Burke joined Hardwick in the minority, extending his run of keeping everyone guessing.)
The bipartisan rejection of the special taxing district signals that an attempt to get the measure "home rule clearance" at the same body will meet similar disaster. But that doesn't mean it's over. Not by a long shot.
One senior elected official told me he calls it the Zombie Tax: just when you think it's dead, it wakes up and bites you.
The tax district is the brain child of a split Erie County Library board and their director, Mary Jean Jakubowski. Their plan: Give the library stable funding via a special dedicated tax, stability they claim they have never been offered or received.
This claim is technically not true. Hardwick proposed a county law to offer the library system a two percent cap on funding cuts. This isn’t the best bill for democracy; it guarantees we will always pay around $20 million for a library even when technology eliminates its usefulness. Still, it's a solution the library board shushed.
By ignoring options presented to them - and by constantly drumming up astroturf letter and call campaigns to legislators - the library board has alienated themselves from the elected leaders in county government that provide their funding. For the first time since I’ve been back in the saddle of Erie County politics, a cause has emerged that has united Republicans, Conservatives, all sides of the Democratic Party - even the RINOS and DINOs.
Honest to God, it's a Kumbaya. It's Nick Langworthy holding hands with Jeremy Zellner who's armlocked with Steve Pigeon and Ed Rath and Betty Jean Grant - and Mark Poloncarz is on the guitar. Every elected county leader of significance opposes the creation of this new layer of government. Their chief complaint is the "library district" is designed like a school district to grow unchecked and extract added taxes forever and ever.
This unified opposition is good for taxpayers and will save us money. This metaphysical fact bothers the library board and Jakubowski so much that they hired lawyers to find a way to circumvent the hands that feed them. Their brilliant, but likely illegal idea: Ignore the fact that New York is a Home Rule State and go directly to Albany to pass a bill creating the library district without including local leadership.
I wonder how much the taxpayers paid for that advice?
This idea may have sounded cool to the library, but it frosted some legislators enough they wanted to know more about this new strategy. They passed a resolution asking Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw to conduct an audit of the library. Mychajliw obliged, and responded by sending the library an official entrance letter.
I'm specifically interested in the Comptroller’s specific request for communications between the library, their lobbyists and lawyers about the creation of the district. Can you imagine the bon mots in that email chain? I couldn't resist, and reached out to the Comptroller’s Office to see if they were given this information. I learned that at first they weren’t, but eventually the Comptroller issued subpoenas and then got the information tout suite.
You read that right - The Erie County Library refused to comply until they were SUBPOENA'ed. There must be some dead serious Codice Biblioteca. I envision hardened criminals draped in dark suits, their hair pulled back in severe buns.
The library responded, so I asked for a copy of the emails. The Comptroller's Office told me County policy is that information contained in working papers would be released as part of the final audit, and could only be otherwise obtained with a freedom of information request. Shorter that: No.
So I obliged. PoliticsNY submitted the appropriate FOIL paperwork to start the process.
I expect more to come on this story, so I'm sinking my teeth in for awhile. Sit back and enjoy. Somebody's gonna be upset - and it ain't gonna be me.