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COUNTY BUDGET GAMES
GIAMBRA HAS MADE HIS POINT, NOW IT'S TIME TO CRAFT RESPONSIBLE COMPROMISE PLAN

They're starting to sweat in County Hall, and so they should. The fiscal crisis bequeathed to the Legislature by the state of New York, via Joel Giambra's bonfire budget, is threatening to burn down scores of public institutions.

If it is true that a crisis has a way of focusing people's attention, then the members of the County Legislature should, at this point, be focused on the welfare of this community. With not-unreasonable predictions of governmental meltdown ringing daily in their ears, the crisis is at hand. It is time to act.

Word coming out of County Hall is that four of the Legislature's Republicans are adamantly refusing to consider any kind of tax increase. In this overtaxed county, the impulse is entirely understandable -- and utterly irresponsible.

Even if Albany finally accepts its culpability over Medicaid's ruinous impact on county finances, it cannot fix the program before this ship hits the iceberg. The county budget must be in place by Dec. 7, and if it does not include at least some new taxes, the impact will be disastrous, and in more ways than most people recognize. Certainly the deep budget cuts will curtail sheriff's road patrols, derail criminal prosecutions, close libraries and turn the Theater District dark.

Instead of adopting the calamitous red budget he presented, Giambra wants legislators to muster the 10 votes needed to ask Albany to increase the sales tax by a penny. It's better, he says, than either adopting the budget he presented or doubling the county property tax.

But there is another choice, and county legislators should turn to it quickly. Dividing the deficit roughly into thirds, the county should cut expenses, seek a half-a-cent increase in the sales tax and cover the remaining costs with a property tax increase.

What is more, any sales tax increase should be solely for the county, not shared with municipalities, despite the squawking coming from some state legislators. The county's problem, after all, is largely due to the state's Medicaid program, whose costs Albany requires counties to share. And it's not as though some residents won't benefit if the county keeps the money. To belabor the obvious, county government represents all county residents.

It's not a perfect solution, but a perfect one is not available. It is what can be done. Moreover, by demanding that Albany increase the sales tax, the county would stand united in forcing the state to tacitly acknowledge its share of the blame, making it easier for county leaders across the state to keep hammering the governor and legislative leaders to enact urgently needed Medicaid reform.

First things first, though. Giambra needs to actively lead the search for a compromise budget, and county legislators need to put aside their political differences and act on behalf of the people they represent. And they need to do it soon.

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