Erie County Legislature Republicans and Democrats are working collaboratively with County Executive Mark Poloncarz on something that is great for this county. Together, they will save residents millions on property tax payments and prevent the expansion of the government's reach into your wallet - and no one is talking about it.
The latest move: Poloncarz's five new appointees to the Library Board oppose the creation of a yet another layer of County taxes to fund libraries, essentially killing the stalled proposal.
Four years ago, the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library (BECPL) started actively lobbying public officials to support the creation of an additional County taxing district to fund the libraries. This sounds like a novel idea to those who love libraries: it would create stable funding for the library to better plan for the future. It would also guarantee revenue and allow the library greater access to the bond market for capital improvements. Voters could set the library's budget, and make the final determination of whether it should spend more or less.
All of this sounds great. After all, and in all seriousness, the BECPL does wonderful work, has an unbelievable collection of rare books, and masterfully maintains an expansive system in a demanding economy. It truly is a jewel for this community to celebrate.
But celebrate at what cost? As with most grand government plans, the devil was lurking in the details, carefully drafted at taxpayer expense by well paid lobbyists and lawyers.
Those lobbyists and lawyers took more than $500,000 out of taxpayer pockets to advise library administrators on how to establish an independent government authority with taxing capabilities to oversee the library system. Their motives became clear: they were trying to lock in a source of guaranteed lifetime revenue for a library system that might no longer be wanted in 25 years. Creating a taxing district would require a public referendum. That vote would have to be requested by the BECPL Board of Directors and approved by the State Assembly and Senate. State legislators would be hard pressed not to grant it for fear that they may be seen as anti-library. Oddly, even BECPL board members appointed by then-County Executive Collins supported the taxing district proposal.
With Collins seemingly on board and state legislators likely to give it their go ahead with little review, the movement seemed to have traction. Library administrators began touring the county to explain the proposal, including several trips to the legislature.
As the lobbying effort progressed, the library made some crucial errors early on. First, they assumed public officials were all pro-library, regardless of cost. Despite paying outrageous sums to lawyers, they were short with the details of how the district would be approved, creating some confusion amongst elected officials. At one point, they invited legislators to the library for a presentation and leaked that they had been advised to seek a referendum date other than general election day - they feared the district vote may fail and wanted to ensure a low turnout.
A few months after that faux pas, they appeared before the legislature to talk about the district again, and this time mentioned that because of the newly imposed property tax cap, they would have to ask for their initial budget to be higher than its current one, to live within the 2.5% growth cap in the future.
All of this was mounting at the Rath Building, and legislators on both sides of the aisle knew if they allowed the BECPL to become its own taxing authority it would soon take on a life of its own. Similar to school boards, each year there would be some excuse to raise taxes that would come in concert with threats of library closures and service cancellations. The library budget would be presented to the public for their approval on some random weekday in March, and most of the taxpaying public would miss out on it because they are busy living their lives. This nightmare plays out for Erie County taxpayers each year in the form of school board budgets. A consensus of lawmakers came to realize the taxpayers of Erie County just couldn't afford another ever-rising tax bill. County Executive Mark Poloncarz agreed with them.
On March 19th, Poloncarz sent a letter to the Legislature announcing five appointments to the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library's Board of Directors, replacing prior Collins appointees. In the coming years, Poloncarz will have more appointments and effectively changing the mentality of the board and the future of the library system.
Insiders have been assured that none of Poloncarz's appointments support the creation of a new library taxing district. What is not quite known just yet is... what was in it for the politicians? It seems, this time, only the taxpayers won.