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THE COUNTY BUDGET
LEGISLATORS MUST PRESS ALBANY TO ACCEPT ITS ROLE IN FORCING HIGHER TAXES HERE

What we have here is a necessary game of chicken. Erie County Executive Joel Giambra has delivered to county legislators a doomsday budget that calls for 3,000 layoffs and grievous budget cuts, but proclaimed that he doesn't want lawmakers to enact it.

What he wants is a bipartisan vote of the Legislature asking Albany to enact an additional one-cent sales tax in Erie County to pay for the runaway, state-mandated costs of Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor. That increase, together with fewer but still-significant numbers of layoffs, would balance the budget, preserve important programs and accomplish the urgent task of hanging this dead-fish budget around the necks of state legislators, whose hidebound irresponsibility regarding Medicaid has driven property taxes skyward all around New York.

No one, including Giambra, wants this budget to be adopted. Indeed, the county executive presented legislators with two budgets, the scorched-Earth plan he formally presented, and an alternative one that includes the sales tax increase he wants.

The other unspoken choice, of course, is to raise the county property tax, something Giambra steadfastly -- or stubbornly, depending upon your point of view -- refuses to contemplate. In the end, we think the solution to this conundrum is a mix of budget cuts and increases in both the sales and property taxes, but that's a matter for negotiation, and Albany will not vote to raise the sales tax if it sees any way to avoid leaving its fingerprints on this mess.

This is not the time to relieve the pressure. What is needed now is for county legislators to show Albany that they are serious about the twin tasks of keeping any property tax increase as low as possible and of demanding that Albany accept a share of responsibility for the county's fiscal crisis. Much as Democrats on the Legislature may not want to do Giambra's bidding on this, they need to recognize that, on the subject of Medicaid, he is unquestionably right. Doubters should consult Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat, and Oneida County Executive Joseph Griffo, a Republican, both of whom understand Albany's culpability in the fiscal crises besetting New York counties.

Virtually every county in the state has raised property taxes over the past two years, some by double-digit percentages. That's not a coincidence and it's not because every county executive and every county legislature in the state is incompetent. It's because they exist in New York, home to a Medicaid program that costs twice the national average and where state leaders require counties to pay half the nonfederal cost.

Despite unassailable evidence of what Medicaid has done to New York's counties, Albany has refused to enact any serious reforms. To ask county taxpayers to continue absorbing that punishment, and to let Albany off the hook for the responsibility, will only encourage state lawmakers to believe they can continue to get away with this reckless, have-it-all strategy of governance. They can't. It's killing upstate, and someone needs to hammer that message home.

Giambra will eventually have to compromise on this painful budget, but first, county legislators have to get with the program. They need to demand action from Albany before they even think of asking county property owners to fork over more of their dollars to pay for the state's willfulness.