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GIAMBRA BUDGET COULD COST 6,000 JOBS
FUNDING FOR ARTS, LIBRARIES WOULD END
SALES TAX HIKE PRESCRIBED AS CURE FOR LAYOFFS, CUTS

County Executive Joel A. Giambra today said he is reluctantly presenting a 2005 budget that could idle 6,000 county employees and workers who rely on government money. It also puts an end to nearly every service not mandated by the state or federal governments.

"Today I am filing . . . a budget that stops any discretionary spending, a budget that closes libraries, ends cultural funding, ends road patrols, ends county government as we know it today," he said.

"It is a balanced budget, as required by law. But it is not the budget I want to send. It does not advance regionalism. It is not what this community needs. It is not the budget this Legislature should adopt."

It eliminates money for libraries, Sheriff's Department patrols and aid for human services agencies and the arts.

His prominent message was that most cuts could be restored if Erie County raises its sales tax. With the income generated by a new penny on the tax, Giambra says he could avoid most of the pain from the $130 million deficit forecast for next year.

He is hoping that the assorted interest groups who rely on county money lobby for the 10 County Legislature votes he needs and prod key state lawmakers who so far have refused to carry his sales-tax request to Albany.

"I have asked for a penny sales tax. But because I cannot yet count on that sales tax, I cannot today submit the budget I want to submit," he said.

He described a second budget, one that spares most workers and restores money for services. But he said he can't present that budget to the County Legislature without assurances that he'll receive a sales tax increase.

Giambra has met privately with county legislators over the past week, both Republicans and Democrats, to warn of his "scorched earth" budget and to pressure them to raise the sales tax in Erie County to 9.25 cents on the dollar.

Some lawmakers have told him he needs to rethink his approach and consider a blend of measures: combining less drastic cuts in spending with more modest increases in the sales tax and the property tax to solve the crisis.

Giambra has said it would be unfair to taxpayers to raise both taxes. The sales tax, he argues, is easier on residents because it is paid gradually, and also is paid by visitors.

"What I get back from him is that it's his way or no way," said Legislature Majority Leader Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda.

"It shouldn't have to be an either/or scenario," she said. "That is not governing."

Lawmakers also tell him he won't win a sales tax increase without agreeing to share the income with other local governments, which Giambra says he can't do because there wouldn't be enough left for county needs.

Erie County now shares most sales tax income with schools and local governments but keeps the money generated by an extra penny added in 1985. That's seen as unfair by citizen groups and many local officials, especially those from the ailing City of Buffalo. Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, has said Giambra's request will be dead on arrival in Albany if he won't share the proceeds.

"It's going to be very difficult to raise the sales tax based on the history of not sharing," said County Legislature Chairman George A. Holt Jr., D-Buffalo, whose caucus is trying to strike a compromise with a plan to use sales tax money to provide tax relief across Erie County.

Holt also expresses some dislike for the way Giambra has threatened so many people with a loss of county money as a way to force their allegiance.

"It's just unfortunate we had to do it this way," he said, noting that Giambra has been praised for advancing ideas on merging government services. "Sometimes you have to think out of the box on how to bring people together." County lawmakers have five weeks to deal with the budget; they must adopt their refined version by Dec. 7 or Giambra's proposal becomes law.

Legislator Albert DeBenedetti, D-Buffalo, said he will convene budget hearings of his Finance and Management Committee not just in Old County Hall but in venues around the county. He said he'll hold one in the city and one each in the Northtowns, the Southtowns and the eastern towns.

County department heads are bracing for the worst and learning that it costs money to cut money. When the library system -- which currently receives about $30 million from the county -- learned it might be left with just $7.2 million, forcing it to close all 52 branch libraries, officials soon realized that amount won't even sustain the central library in Buffalo.

After officials spend $4.5 million on unemployment insurance, plus $1.5 million to pay laid-off workers for unused vacation time and thousands of dollars more to mothball buildings, most of the $7.2 million will be gone.

"Basically, I know it's going to be the ugliest budget I have ever seen, and it goes way beyond anything that we had anticipated," said Library Director Michael Mahaney. "It doesn't allow us to give service. It just gives us enough to close the doors."

Other lawmakers who have met with Giambra learned his budget will illustrate the drag that the Medicaid health care program places on county finances. The recession that began this decade threw more New York residents onto the Medicaid rolls, as Giambra was making good on a campaign promise to cut taxes.

He and county lawmakers cut taxes and drained the savings account, eliminating any ability to use reserves to solve the 2005 dilemma. Giambra and his budget aides estimate Medicaid in 2005 will cost Erie County more than $200 million, about $82 million more than in 1999, the year he was first elected.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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