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OPPOSITION TO GIAMBRA'S BUDGET PLAN GROWS
ELECTED OFFICIALS, DEPARTMENT HEADS DECRY WHAT THEY CALL DESTRUCTIVENESS OF PROPOSAL

Erie County's "red budget" seems headed for death, perhaps in the late-night hours of Dec. 7, when lawmakers must decide how much to spend in 2005.

"This is not the budget," Legislator Mark J.F. Schroeder, D-Buffalo, said Tuesday, slapping the budget books that are the focus of hearings this week. "This will not work. This will not work for Erie County."

A parade of department heads continues to cast the plan offered by Republican County Executive Joel A. Giambra as a disaster. And he's their boss.

"The proposed red budget represents the destruction of central police services as it's known today," said the department's commissioner, Kevin Comerford. "Who is impacted? Probably everyone in Erie County."

"I assure you that if the red budget goes into effect, there will be an outrage," said Parks and Recreation Commissioner Lawrence D. Jasinski.

Then there are the officials elected countywide:

"We would be the only community in the United States that will not have an effective prosecutor's office," said District Attorney Frank J. Clark, whose spending has been cut by two-thirds for 2005. ". . . I cannot be responsible for the lawlessness that will occur in the streets of the city and the county in the coming year."

"It would be a complete abdication of our duty to our citizens if the red budget is adopted," said Sheriff Patrick M. Gallivan, who would lose nearly 70 percent of his personnel outside the jail division. "Just as the DA said, if this budget is adopted, our services are gone. Period."

"This budget defies logic," said County Clerk David J. Swarts. "I understand the politics behind it. I understand the game of chicken and who blinks first. The fact is, this budget is wrong for Erie County."

Even Giambra doesn't want the Legislature to pass his red budget, which lowers spending from about $1.1 billion to just under $960 million next year. Giambra deliberately axed services not mandated by the state or federal governments and those sure to elicit an emotional reaction from the public.

For 2005, he cut road patrols, closed county-owned parks, golf courses and libraries, halted aid to cultural groups and human services agencies, gutted the district attorney's office and ensured longer lines at auto bureaus by cutting the staff and shuttering two branches.

While the Legislature feels the heat, Giambra behind the scenes is trying to win the 10 Legislature votes needed to raise the sales tax by a penny, to 9.25 percent. With the two-thirds majority, he can better persuade state lawmakers from Western New York to get the request approved in Albany, too.

He still has a long way to go, especially with Republicans. Lawmakers hear the complaint that New Yorkers pay the nation's highest taxes, and the burden has forced longtime residents and businesses to greener pastures in other regions of the country.

The Democrats who suggest mixing smaller sales tax and property tax increases with cuts in spending, say they're willing to negotiate with Giambra, but this week he has been unavailable.

A few legislators acknowledge time is on Giambra's side as details of his budget emerge and residents attend four hearings scheduled in the next two weeks.

Legislators Tuesday said the budget makes little sense in so many ways. It lays off teams of parks workers who could pay for themselves and more by collecting the fees at golf courses, campgrounds and parks. It depletes staff for projects that have already consumed millions of dollars.

While Giambra's budget closes libraries and golf courses, it includes money for expensive improvements at libraries and golf courses. Meanwhile, the cost to lay off as many as 3,000 workers has been estimated at $15 million to $18 million when considering the unused leave owed and unemployment pay.

The budget might also be out of balance because revenue estimates are too generous. Swarts, the county clerk, said his department won't be able to collect the money expected if he loses 30 percent of his staff and two auto bureaus close.

Finance and Management Committee Chairman Albert DeBenedetti, D-Buffalo, calls it "the budget from hell."

Democrats want to write a new budget, or at least juggle Giambra's priorities if there is no tax increase.

A Republican legislator, Charles M. Swanick of Kenmore, said the Democrats should consult with Republicans, too.

Swanick says he'd vote for a higher sales tax if Albany's three leaders -- Gov. George E. Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno -- agree to work toward reforming the Medicaid system. Without Medicaid reform, Erie County will soon face a new financial crisis, he said.

"This thing is going to rewrite itself," Swanick said of the red budget. It could be on Dec. 7, the Legislature's deadline, or it could be early in 2005, he said, after lawmakers see the damage it has wrought.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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