As the outcry against Erie County's proposed "red budget" continued on Tuesday, many taxpayers were talking more about a compromise budget that would let the various branches of county government share the pain.
About 200 residents packed the Clarence Public Library for the County Legislature's fourth and final public hearing on County Executive Joel A. Giambra's two alternatives for 2005.
A red budget would shut down libraries and a host of other vital services. A "green budget" based on raising the 8.25 sales tax to 9.25, with approval from Albany, would continue many services.
In a bid to win the 10 votes needed to raise the sales tax, Giambra offered on Tuesday to use some proceeds from it to pay for "regional collaboration projects" involving local governments interested in merging services.
He says he would be willing to set aside 6 percent of the proceeds in a "STAR" program -- "Saving Taxes Across the Region."
The fund could amount to $6.4 million in 2005 and $7.8 million in 2006, he said, and any money accumulated in one year and not spent would be available in later years. He said lawmakers can even use the money to finance mergers he does not approve of if the Legislature's majority and minority leaders agree.
At the Clarence Public Library, many taxpayers were in a mood to pass on the sales tax increase and bite the bullet with cuts spread evenly across the county bureaucracy.
Provided all -- or some -- of the libraries are kept open.
Referring to the red budget as "destruction therapy," Joe Ortolani asked why the Erie County library system ranks ninth in the country for the number of branches it operates.
"Why do you have to close 51 or 52 branches?" he asked. "Why not just close every other one? You'd still be giving the same service."
"We're 21st in circulation, we're 27th in population served, we're ninth in the number of library branches we have," Ortolani said. "I don't get it."
"I'll explain it to you later," a menacing woman's voice called, provoking chuckles in the crowd.
"I'd be willing to pay a nickel a book to keep the library going," said Jacob Zimpfer of Clarence. "But we just can't go on like this. We've got to cut government employees and their benefits and cut taxes."
Marcey Roddie, a payroll clerk in the Erie County Health Department, said the red budget isn't just about closing libraries.
"It's more about checks and balances, major money mismanagement," she said. "This new (SAP) computer system that the county executive lauds as being 'great and wonderful' is not. The problem is compounding itself. The financial management software, known as SAP, has cost the county $26 million so far.
"There are employees taking time off that they don't have," the 25-year veteran continued. By now she had the crowd enthralled. "The only way for me to make a correction in payroll is to keep track of the old way and the new way. Being a payroll clerk used to be an exact science and it is no longer -- it's guess work."
Roddie also said Giambra "has infiltrated each department with his people," and "with this new computer system, at the end of our budget year on Sept. 30 they could not tell us how much money we had left to use or if it would go back to New York State."
Other speakers joined in the chorus against politics as usual.
"Don't pit people against each other," Moira Gallagher Schorr of Williamsville told legislators. "Cut all the way around, a little bit from everything. Yes, we need libraries, but maybe not 52 of them."
"Stop pointing fingers at each other," said Rick Martin of Newstead. "We must have the will to find a stop-gap solution. You guys stop arguing and grow up."
Applause filled the library.
Beth Downing, an Alden certified public accountant, said Giambra's red budget was designed "to cut the services that would elicit the most vocal response -- and he's been very successful, as you can see." She added: "You need to cut patronage jobs and take a hard look at every department."
"Cut everything," said Pamela Domon of Newstead. "The sales tax (increase) is easy and quick, but it won't put the hammer to Medicaid costs. It's never going to go away. It won't tell the state that we mean business" about reforming Medicaid in Albany.
An employee of the Erie County Clerk's office, David Rosen-Brand of Amherst, said, "Stop making workers the villains. We have to survive from paycheck to paycheck too."
He warned that under the red budget, "If you buy a new home it will take a year to get it on file. How many banks will be eager to give out money when you don't have the deed in hand? This would also affect the filing of a judge's child support orders."
Tom Witkowski of Grand Island recalled how his company, Control Techniques, cut its staff in half in order to remain in business. "It wasn't easy," he said. "We sat down and worked together. Now our customers call us heroes. I ask you to think hard -- and give and take."
News Staff Reporter Matthew Spina contributed to this story.