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GIAMBRA SPEECH GETS COOL RECEPTION
STATE OF THE COUNTY OFFERS APOLOGY, VOW TO HIKE TAX

County Executive Joel A. Giambra offered a rare apology Thursday during his State of the County address -- and then promised higher property taxes and fee hikes in the near future.

"Come November, when I propose a budget, I will do what all county executives must do," he said. "I can no longer wait for Albany to change. I can no longer wait for Albany to pay its bills.

"So my tax cut, the 30 percent property tax cut, the lowest property tax rate of any major county in New York State, will have to be history."

His remarks were poorly received.

Giambra has typically been greeted with standing ovations from business leaders during his State of the County address. But on Thursday, they barely offered polite clapping when he walked on stage at the Buffalo Convention Center.

The recitation of county achievements and visions typically is met with great applause. Thursday it was punctuated by silence inside the center, while protesters rallied outside.

And despite his mid-speech apology, audience members appeared both unimpressed and troubled by his ongoing determination to foist all blame on the state without unveiling a more concrete and collaborative plan to get the county's own house in order.

"Before I get to tomorrow, we must face up to today," Giambra said, after highlighting a litany of positive county developments. "And that means I must make an apology, because I made a mistake this past winter. Being county executive can be a very tough and daunting job and responsibility. One has to be an executive, but I never really understood the limits of my office."

Giambra apologized not for introducing two drastically different budgets to the Legislature or for trying to raise taxes. Instead, he apologized for trying to raise revenue by increasing the sales tax instead of raising property taxes.

By doing that, he said, he abdicated his leadership role and allowed county legislators and state lawmakers to dicker over the sales tax hike and then kill it. Instead, he said, he could have raised property taxes on his own and preserved services.

"I asked for, but did not receive, support here or in Albany for a Medicaid sales tax," he said. "This should never have happened. And I accept the responsibility."

In addition to promising a property tax increase, Giambra advocated higher fees for the county golf courses and a $35-per-month fee for criminal offenders on probation.

The county executive tried throughout his 40-minute speech to rally audience enthusiasm for his vision of a brighter future.

"We have a legacy to uphold," he said. "We have been a beacon of hope for almost 200 years, and we cannot slip into darkness because we are angry with Albany. Our light may have flickered, but I am convinced that our light will burn bright once again in Erie County."

Recalling achievements

As Giambra has frequently done in the past, he reminded the audience of his 30 percent property tax cut of five years ago, and his administration's efforts to trim $40 million in county spending during his tenure.

He repeatedly faulted the state for passing on high Medicaid and pension costs to the county. And he once again repeated his push for the adoption of a regional government plan.

During one awkward moment, he reprimanded Mayor Anthony M. Masiello for not supporting regional government. He was obviously expecting applause, but instead got a long stretch of silence.

Sedate applause greeted the conclusion of his remarks.

A number of audience members and business people interviewed afterward were reluctant to attach their names to their negative impressions of the speech, though the word "disappointing" came up frequently.

Some said they had hoped for more insight into how this budget crisis happened, more acceptance of personal responsibility for alienating friends and foes, and a stronger plan for how to move the county forward.

They also said Giambra's apology didn't sound sincere.

"There was that apology," said one Catholic Health Systems official who refused to give his name, "but he kind of said it, and I didn't feel it."

Gordon Hessel Jr., the Town of Holland supervisor and president of the Association of New York State Towns, agreed.

"I listened intently," Hessel said, "but I never really heard what the apology was. I admire him for getting up there. He had to say something. But was there good fodder in his speech? I didn't think so."

Protesters decry budget

Even before his speech got started, a large group of protesters across the street from the Convention Center offered their "Alternative State of the County Address," decrying the lack of county funding for community groups, schools and health care organizations.

"A county budget is a moral document," said Maria Whyte, director of the local Coalition for Economic Justice, which advocates workers rights. "It indicates where we set our priorities as a community . . . A moral county budget does not lay the burden of the financial crisis on the poorest and weakest in our community."

Meanwhile, County Legislature Majority Leader Lynn M. Marinelli offered the Democratic response to Giambra's address, highlighting the Legislature's creation of a Citizens Budget Review Commission and the unanimous passage of a new Budget Disclosure Act.

She reiterated the likelihood that any proposal to raise fees would face an uphill battle in the Legislature.

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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