The Erie County comptroller Monday accused the state-appointed control board of hyping the specter of a budget deficit and suggested the panel tone down its rhetoric.
"To declare the 2007 budget in deficit 11 days into the fiscal year is extremely premature," Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz said in a letter addressed to control board Chairman Anthony Baynes and circulated to the County Legislature, state lawmakers and Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer.
"Your actions have raised concerns in the community, among the taxpayers and on Wall Street that the county government is behaving unreasonably and inappropriately (your words) in its budgeting and financial decision-making," Poloncarz wrote to Baynes.
"Your public statements to this effect are disingenuous, not necessarily accurate and are causing negative consequences to Erie County government," he said.
While the control board's relations with the Legislature and County Executive Joel A. Giambra are typically rocky, Poloncarz chooses his battles carefully. This time, it is with a seven-page argument describing what he called the control board's flawed logic in predicting a shortfall when it is the comptroller's role to declare a deficit if one exists.
His letter is not likely to change the control board's decision to impose a hiring freeze and to grant itself the right to reject contracts worth more than $50,000. The panel first gave itself those powers shortly before Election Day and reaffirmed them Jan. 11, when it declared the budget and the county's four-year financial plan out of balance.
As a result, the panel intends to remain as a hard control board through the year, despite a lawsuit by Giambra and the county's two largest public-employee unions.
Baynes said he would respond to Poloncarz with a cordial letter urging that all the parties work together to fix the government's long-term financial issues. But he told The Buffalo News that many of the control board's budget issues had been highlighted in the comptroller's earlier analysis. Baynes said he saw the comptroller's overall message as an endorsement of the control board's work.
"I don't see us disagreeing on any major items," he said. "The comptroller, in his letter, says that he shares some of our concerns on the 2007 budget and the 2007-10 financial plan. . . . He also agrees with us in saying that he is deeply concerned by the failure to engage in more re-engineering and cost containment and that many cost-saving initiatives are being deferred for the next county executive in 2008."
In his letter, Poloncarz accepts some of the control board's laments about Giambra and his budget staff. But he is most concerned with the contention that a $15.5 million deficit lurks in this year's budget because some revenue estimates, the control board says, are inflated.
That $15.5 million figure is key because it amounts to slightly more than 1 percent of the total county budget. The state law that created the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority lets it become a hard control board to deal with a deficit of 1 percent or more.
Poloncarz disagreed that golf course revenue, interest income or the sale of liens on tax delinquent properties would fall short to the extent that the control board predicts.
Nor did he foresee the overtime to be racked up by jail deputies topping this year's budgeted amount.
At worst, Poloncarz said, he sees $6.3 million in "potential issues." But until Erie County incurs a deficit of 1 percent, then the control board should not impose a "control period," the law's terminology for a hard control board able to force the hands of elected leaders.
After all, every county in New York has the potential to encounter a deficit, Poloncarz said.
He said the control board's adversarial tone with the Giambra administration does not serve taxpayers well.