After warming up with a rally Tuesday outside the Central Library in downtown Buffalo, supporters led the charge down Washington Street to the second public hearing on a proposed Erie County budget for 2005.
The auditorium at Erie Community College's City Campus quickly filled to its capacity of 400 and the speakers' list exceeded 80. Additional hearings are scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday in Erie Community College's South Campus and Tuesday in the Clarence Public Library.
"This is an unfortunate thing that we have to do, but I appreciate everyone coming here to show your support," said Rebecca Pordum, chairwoman of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library board of trustees. Addressing dozens of sign-bearing supporters in front of the library's main branch, she said funding must remain status quo for the entire system to remain viable.
"What I don't want to see is one branch being able to stay open at the expense of other branches," Pordum said.
Under County Executive Joel A. Giambra's proposed "red budget," almost all nonmandated services would be eliminated. Aid would be cut off to the arts and cultural programs, dozens of local charities and the zoo. An estimated 3,000 county employees would be laid off.
But by the time the hearing got under way Tuesday, the county executive had switched to his alternative "green budget," which would not cut services as deeply but would seek to generate revenue by raising the county's sales tax to 9.25 percent.
Giambra said he would share new sales tax income with other local governments but not as most people would share it.
"Joel Giambra's not giving cash to anybody -- ever -- while he's in this office," he said of himself. Instead of handing out checks, he said, county government would offer to provide many of its services to towns, cities and villages as a way to end duplication and ease property taxes countywide.
Tax-assessment services now performed by towns could be done by one county department, Giambra said. An aide last week also mentioned snowplowing and tax collecting as other services that could be merged even further than they are now.
Giambra said he would present his ideas to the County Legislature as a way to win the needed 10 votes and then the state support necessary for a higher sales tax. He asked that the Legislature vote this week to raise the tax, but Legislature Chairman George A. Holt Jr., D-Buffalo, said he would not call a special session.
The issue of sales tax versus property tax increases came up sporadically during Tuesday's hearing, where it appeared that few people were aware of Giambra's new tack.
Craig Speers of Buffalo said Allegany and Genesee counties adopted budgets that raise property taxes but not county sales taxes. "Sales tax increases are a huge burden on the middle and lower classes in our society," he said. "But it's not a burden on millionaires or large property owners."
Many other speakers talked about how the "red budget" would affect services in several county departments and agencies that receive funding.
Michele Schmarder, a probation officer, said her caseload in the City of Buffalo is about 100. "With these proposed cuts, caseloads in our department will quadruple," she said. "This will be devastating to a city already teetering on the brink."
Cheryl Kimble, a public health nurse who works in a school, defended their services, particularly those provided to city schoolchildren. "They need our services. We are their safe haven," she said. "We are their first responders."
Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, called it a "sickening spectacle" for people to have to beg "for services that are so basic and so necessary that any other place in this country, they would be a given."
"Closing libraries is the equivalent of burning books. School nurses aren't a luxury . . . They are the first line of defense for our kids."
Rumore, as well as several speakers after him, directed his ire at Giambra: "The person that delivered that budget is not here tonight. There's something wrong with the system . . . that you legislators have to stand here night after night . . . and take the heat for a budget you didn't produce."