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FAST ON THE TAX TRIGGER
GIAMBRA REACHED TOO QUICKLY FOR INCREASE IN PROPERTY LEVY TO BALANCE 2006 BUDGET

You can give Erie County Executive Joel Giambra credit for acknowledging some hard truths in his State of the County address, but it was disappointing to hear him sign on to a 2006 property tax increase this early in 2005.

It may, in fact, be inevitable, given the draconian cuts of this year and the continued rise in such expenses as pensions and Medicaid costs, though the latter will soon be capped as a result of the new state budget. Expenses go up, and with a shrinking tax base, the only answers are to reduce costs or increase revenues.

Nevertheless, there is such a thing as order, and in an overtaxed county in an overtaxed state, the order goes something like this: How much money do we have available? How much will that buy? How can we responsibly control or reduce expenses? If we have to increase revenues -- property taxes, sales taxes, user fees -- what is the best way to combine them?

Perhaps that process is already under way within the Giambra administration, leading to his statement last week. But it's awfully early in the year to be talking about a 2006 tax increase. Why not wait a bit and see how the rest of the year plays out and what economies can be effected? Furthermore, salesmanship is part of any leader's job. Making the case for a tax increase requires something more than the political equivalent of throwing a dead fish at the feet of shellshocked residents.

Some of that shock is self-inflicted, of course. The County Legislature couldn't muster the two-thirds majority needed to request a sales tax increase this year because a critical mass of lawmakers were convinced their constituents wouldn't stand for it.

The Legislature did have the votes to increase the property tax, but Giambra, who acknowledges his mistake, didn't offer that possibility. Seeking to protect his reputation as a tax cutter while hanging some of the responsibility for rising costs around Albany's neck, he opted for a sales tax increase, which requires the approval of state legislators and the governor.

But the strategy backfired, leading to hundreds of layoffs and a dramatic slashing of services. In his speech, Giambra apologized for failing to act where he had the authority -- on property taxes -- and all but promised an increase when he unveils his 2006 budget proposal this fall.

Whatever mistakes Giambra and county legislators may have made, this much is true: Every county in New York is in a financial mess that can be traced in large part to Albany and specifically to the scope and structure of New York's Medicaid program. To the extent that Giambra's volley was directed at that problem, it was aimed in the right direction, if carelessly discharged.

With services scorched in Erie County, residents have to hope that their misery does not go unnoticed in the State Capitol, which, despite some welcome changes this year, continues to exert an unhealthy influence on the economy of virtually every one of its counties.