Calling the current situation a "sin," Buffalo lawmakers are pushing to reopen the perennial debate over Erie County's failure to share the extra percentage point of its sales tax with its municipalities.
Common Council Majority Leader Rosemarie LoTempio said Wednesday that "the timing is right" to begin talks about sharing the growth in revenues derived from the extra 1 percentage point of the levy, noting that the county will reap the benefits from a $211 million payout from the tobacco settlement.
County Executive Joel A. Giambra said he was willing to discuss the matter but would insist on seeing "structural changes" in city government before he would agree to provide any additional aid through sales tax revenues.
"We're not in the business of giving out money without seeing entities take steps to improve their own finances," Giambra said.
The issue resurfaced during a meeting of the Common Council's Community Development Committee on Wednesday when LoTempio urged Giambra to remember his roots; he formerly served as city comptroller and as a Council member representing the Niagara District.
"Joel Giambra doesn't remember the years when he sat on this Council and saw how the city was struggling," LoTempio said. "A walk across the street has changed all that. I can't understand it."
The county executive called LoTempio's comments surprising, considering that she never has called him to discuss the issue. Giambra contended that he has proved his commitment to the city in many ways, including the county's recent agreement to help build new city schools.
The lively discussion was spurred by lawmakers' concerns about a recent cut in county funding for a community center in South Buffalo's Seneca-Babcock neighborhood. City officials said the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency had earmarked funding to fill the gap.
LoTempio contended that, for 15 years, the county consistently has reduced aid to city-based public benefit organizations, forcing the city to fill the voids. She called on county officials to consider sharing the growth in revenue from the 1 percentage point sales tax. Revenue from the additional penny per dollar has ballooned from slightly more than $70 million in the late 1980s to a projected $114 million this year, or an average annual increase of about 5 percent.
"We don't even get an opportunity to share the growth, and that's a sin," LoTempio told committee members.
The additional penny per dollar was tacked onto the 7 percent sales tax in 1985 to help the county grapple with a $75 million deficit. But LoTempio said the tables have turned: The city faces a budget shortfall in the next fiscal year that could approach $42 million, while the tobacco settlement has improved the county's fiscal outlook.
"With this windfall, the timing is right to discuss an issue that's been debated for years," LoTempio said. "There are numerous Council members who are willing to jump on this bandwagon to try make it happen."