The fuzzy outline of a sales tax majority has formed in the Erie County Legislature -- 10 members willing to discuss adding a penny to the sales tax to avoid County Executive Joel A. Giambra's "budget from hell."
Each member attaches strings to their vote, so the bloc still hasn't gelled. Three key figures -- Giambra, his ally Charles M. Swanick, R-Kenmore, and Chairman George A. Holt Jr., D-Buffalo -- are trying in their own way to engineer the two-thirds majority needed to raise the sales tax to 9.25 percent come March 1.
Without 10 votes, Giambra's "red budget" of draconian cuts could pass by default Dec. 7, sparing taxpayers' wallets but closing parks, libraries and auto bureaus, cutting off aid for the arts and laying off deputies, prosecutors and 3,000 workers.
Each of the Legislature's eight Democrats has expressed some willingness to raise the sales tax, according to members, though most voice conditions.
Some see the need to share the income with other local governments, particularly Buffalo City Hall, but others insist the income not be shared. Some are not willing to also raise property taxes to make up for the sales tax money that would be given to towns, villages, cities and schools.
Some Democratic lawmakers will withhold their votes until they see most, or all, of the Republican lawmakers extending their necks, too.
"There are components in play that certainly could lead us to an acceptable compromise as long as everybody realizes they are going to have to compromise," said Buffalo Democrat Albert DeBenedetti, the first to use the "budget from hell" description this week.
His Finance and Management Committee listened to steady complaints about the budget and will take its hearings on the road starting Monday, with a 6 p.m. session at Lancaster Middle School.
A cluster of Republican lawmakers argues that new tax money just papers over the government's bloat, enabling leaders to continue avoiding difficult choices. Property taxes in Erie County are more than 40 percent above the national average, and residents across the state are paying the nation's highest taxes.
"I didn't get elected to raise taxes," said Elise M. Cusack, R-Amherst. She and Denise E. Marshall, R-Lancaster, say they're not willing to raise taxes under any circumstances this year.
In addition, Republican Leader Michael H. Ranzenhofer of Clarence offers no scenario in which he would ask taxpayers for more. Like all legislators, he says Giambra's budget makes little sense and he's researching whether problems can be solved with across-the-board cuts and pay reductions by employees at all levels.
Republican Steven P. McCarville of Orchard Park on Friday said he, too, wants to see efficiencies and might advance suggestions under research by the GOP staff. But McCarville said he would be willing to raise the sales tax after real savings are found.
Swanick says he's willing to vote for a higher sales tax if Gov. George E. Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno say they'll work to reform the Medicaid system straining counties around the state.
With Swanick, McCarville and the Democrats, that's 10 legislators discussing their votes to raise the sales tax, with most unwilling to raise property taxes, too. As a group, the seven Republicans say they're steadfast against higher property taxes and will emphasize their stand at a news conference today.
Giambra has said he doesn't want to raise property taxes, nor is he willing to share the sales tax income since it would leave County Hall without enough new money. But key state lawmakers from Erie County demand he distribute the sales tax income, as the county does now with most of the proceeds.
They don't want a repeat of 1985, when county officials added a penny to the sales tax and called it temporary as a way to keep all its revenue. That temporary penny remains in place today.
Giambra says the tax will generate $109 million in 2005, plus about $125 million a year after that, so he can preserve most county services and avoid the 3,000 layoffs. The sales tax and other new fees would let the county spend $1.1 billion, about $140 million more than he initially proposed.
Worried that lawmakers might adopt Giambra's scorched-earth budget, as he calls it, some agencies will soon start to cut services. At 12:01 a.m. Monday, library patrons will no longer be able to specially request items for future use. Giambra's budget leaves the libraries with just enough money to close the doors Jan. 1.
About 5,580 residents signed a petition saying they want to keep libraries operating. When officials testified at a budget hearing Friday, they learned they can count Legislator Raymond K. Dusza, D-Cheektowaga, as an ally.
"I, for one, will be voting for the libraries to stay open, even if it means voting for the 1 percent sales tax," Dusza said.