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COUNTY OFFICIALS PORTRAY FIRE AND BRIMSTONE
IN HOPE OF SALES TAX AVERTING DOOMSDAY '05

A lineup of Erie County department heads Monday charted the flames of the scorched-earth budget County Executive Joel A. Giambra has proposed for 2005:

The new Public Safety Center, being built for $33 million between North and South Division streets, would not have the staff needed to operate.

Medical examiners would not be able to visit death scenes to retrieve bodies.

Dental clinics, which cost county taxpayers less than $400 a year because of outside aid, would close.

The Department of Emergency Services would shrink to an unrecognizable level, unable to train emergency medical technicians or firefighters or update an antiquated radio system.

Vans would no longer shuttle senior citizens to doctors' offices or to dialysis and chemotherapy treatments because of a shortage of drivers.

The county would remove the nurses it provides to Buffalo schools under an agreement that dates from the 1940s, when city health departments in New York merged with county health departments.

The Department of Veterans Services would shrink to a staff of one, Director Louis R. Palma, who says he might have to end the tradition of decorating veterans' graves with U.S. flags for Veterans Day and Memorial Day.

State and federal regulators could seek the return of grant money if they determine that Erie County has failed to provide vital services.

County legislators, in their second day of budget hearings, heard speaker after speaker add weight to the argument for a sales tax increase -- Giambra's preferred way to close the $130 million deficit forecast for next year.

The hearings continue today, when District Attorney Frank J. Clark and Sheriff Patrick M. Gallivan discuss the combined 254 jobs their departments would lose.

Lacking support to raise the sales tax to 9.25 percent, Giambra has proposed a budget that would cut or eliminate services not mandated by the County Charter or by the state or federal governments. He says his "red budget" would idle 3,000 county employees, who were warned Friday of layoffs.

"The cuts right now will really be devastating and will really put the public's health in jeopardy," said Dr. Anthony J. Billittier IV, county health commissioner.

"I don't believe that anybody can accomplish anything with the budget they have received," said County Budget Director Joseph Passafiume, who along with Giambra wants county and state lawmakers to authorize the higher sales tax.

Giambra has put county lawmakers in the position of raising taxes or sharing the blame for ending many county services. Some legislators do not like the course Giambra has chosen.

Legislator Albert DeBenedetti, D-Buffalo, chairman of the Finance and Management Committee, said that while other counties face tough times, only Erie County has a budget that creates so many problems by ending so many nonmandated services.

He said Giambra could have proposed a property tax increase.

"You have the opportunity to point to a revenue," DeBenedetti told Passafiume. "You have a budget here that by your own admission doesn't accomplish anything, and we are probably in violation of a host of state requirements."

Passafiume and Giambra say that with the increased sales tax the county could spend $1.1 billion next year -- about this year's level -- compared with the $958 million in the budget Giambra has proposed.

Most of that, $517.3 million, would be spent by the Department of Social Services in extending the welfare safety net to more than 200,000 residents who benefit from at least one of the more than 30 programs provided.

The most expensive for county taxpayers is Medicaid. Half of the health care program's costs are paid by the federal government, and in New York, the state and county governments split the remainder. Giambra says Medicaid, budgeted to cost taxpayers nearly $200 million next year, pulls dollars away from other vital services and quality-of-life programs.

Social Services Commissioner Michael Weiner said Monday that Medicaid now serves 146,000 people in Erie County, about one in seven residents and an increase of 25,280 in just two years.

Since the state pays 90 percent of the cost of elderly patients in nursing homes, those 4,700 people are not the most expensive to county taxpayers. The most expensive, Weiner said, are the 49,000 people who are disabled or have chronic or numerous health problems and are not enrolled in a health maintenance organization. They visit doctors or emergency rooms and cost nearly $12,000 per person, four times the cost of those in HMOs.

While the state has agreed to take on the entire cost of the Family Health Plus program for the working poor, saving Erie County about $6 million next year, Weiner said, he does not see state government accomplishing new Medicaid reforms soon.

"We have no new silver bullets coming our way," he said.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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