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COUNTY DEFICIT MAY BE FAR WORSE
NAPLES PROJECTS SHORTFALL OF $113.5 MILLION

Erie County faces a deficit of $113.5 million this year, Comptroller Nancy A. Naples said Tuesday, projecting a problem far worse than many leaders had imagined.

"I don't know where else we can cut from," said Legislator Barry A. Weinstein, R-East Amherst, who said he had been figuring this year's deficit at a more manageable $50 million. "It suggests to me that the problems that led to overspending from 2004 were not corrected in 2005."

But County Executive Joel A. Giambra took strong exception to the comptroller's projections, calling them "very overexaggerated." He said Naples is counting only half the number of employees actually furloughed during the budget crisis, which he believes inflates the deficit estimates.

In addition, Giambra said he has proposed two measures -- raising the sales tax and laying off approximately 2,000 workers -- that the Legislature and comptroller have so far resisted.

"When I see (Legislators) Denise Marshall and Elise Cusack say the county executive should do something, I have to say we've tried to act," he said, adding that the three-month delay in firing 2,000 workers has cost the county $60 million.

He also assailed Naples as the "height of hypocrisy" by returning to court this week to fight job cuts in her department that his office has requested to help balance the budget.

Giambra said he has acknowledged a $14 million budget gap in a March letter to the Legislature and still seeks appropriate cuts. But he reiterated his desire for State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi to peg any further deficits before addressing them.

For weeks, Naples had told lawmakers they must work to save at least an additional $32 million this year, beyond the $108 million they saved largely by issuing 1,500 pink slips.

Naples and her aides always said the spending package contained deep fault lines, implying the $32 million problem was just the start. Other lawmakers and people familiar with Erie County's spending had predicted the deficit could reach $70 million because legislators had scuttled a sales tax increase.

Tuesday, Naples told legislators that without adjustments by Giambra's Budget Division, the first three months of the year indicate the government will build a $113.5 million deficit as it spends $310,000 a day more than it takes in. The problems include:

About $32 million in reserves used in past budget years is not available to support this year's operations. All available reserves, Naples says, will be needed to close last year's deficit, which is estimated at $106 million but still must be verified by outside auditors.

Sales tax income has been overestimated by $15.5 million she says.

The amount allocated to fringe benefits -- doubly important this year as laid-off workers cash out unused vacation time -- might need another $27 million, she said.

With layoffs and the closing of three of four auto bureaus, the county clerk's office won't bring in $4 million that had been expected, and the government's dearth of cash means anticipated interest income will fall short by $2.5 million, she said.

The $17 million set aside to aid community projects, such as the makeover of the Buffalo School System's All High Stadium, also has been swallowed up by last year's deficit.

The money to be saved from employee turnover has been overestimated by $15.5 million, Naples said.

In a separate report Friday, Naples said the April 22 payroll indicated just 750 of the 1,500 workers said to be laid off actually had departed. Personnel Commissioner John W. Greenan questioned those figures and said he was researching Naples' claim.

The Legislature, meanwhile, has yet to cut its staff's salaries, as planned in March. Lawmakers might opt to furlough aides during different parts of the year, but so far they haven't acted.

Naples said in her letter that she has issued warnings three times on this year's budget problems. "Although it is the county executive's responsibility to advise you as to the full extent of any budget deficit, he seems unwilling to do so," she said.

Joseph Passafiume, Giambra's budget director, said he could not comment on Naples' calculations until he examines her report.

Under the County Charter, the Legislature can cut current-year spending only after the county executive declares a deficit and suggests remedies.

So far, Giambra has acknowledged the need to cut only an additional $14 million this year. Legislators want to wait until the outside audit and a review of county finances by Hevesi's office are complete. Both are due June 15.

Naples' report, which she agrees is "very preliminary," could force yet another critical look at Giambra's plan to reopen county parks by scraping together $1 million. The Legislature's Energy and Environment Committee will discuss that plan today.

"If we can't open all the parks, can we just open a couple, those that can provide the revenue to care for them?" Majority Leader Lynn M. Marinelli asked, describing an approach she will suggest.

"These are sticker-shocking numbers," Marinelli said, and she joined those lawmakers saying they don't know how they could cut spending enough if Naples' $113.5 million projection holds up.

"I don't know how in the world we would balance that kind of number," said Albert DeBenedetti, D-Buffalo, who often has called Naples inconsistent.

When DeBenedetti went to court last September to force Giambra to declare a deficit for that year, a Naples' aide provided a sworn statement saying the county had no deficit at that point.

"It seems to me that the comptroller is finally getting around to doing her job," he said.

News Political Reporter Robert J. McCarthy contributed to this article.

email: mspina@buffnews.com

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