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Collins sees budget passing -- by default

Chris Collins has added this forecast to his first Erie County budget: It will become law by default because the Legislature will be unable to pass it.

"There is just the right amount of pain for everyone, including the $18 [tax increase] for the average homeowner," the county executive said Wednesday.

He figures that no majority of eight legislators will support a budget that raises taxes while cutting favorite programs.

"And, as a result, I fully expect this to be a default budget," Collins said.

When the Legislature can't approve an executive's budget by early December, the executive's proposal goes into effect. Default budgets are often rumored, but there hasn't been one since 1989 -- the first budget from Dennis T. Gorski. Like Collins, Gorski was the first county executive elected after a mid-decade budget meltdown.

If Collins' proposal becomes law, it would impose an 8 percent increase in the amount raised by property taxes, which translates into an easier-to-stomach 3.6 percent increase in the tax rate. That would add $18 a year to the tax bite on a $100,000 house, Collins said.

His budget also would impose $600,000 in higher fees, many of them for documents and services provided by the county clerk, he said.

Collins said he's asking large cultural groups to accept about 5 percent less in county aid, the Convention and Visitors Bureau to accept no increase and the library system to rely on its reserves and do without the extra $1.6 million the Legislature bestowed last year.

He has zeroed out grants for other past-year recipients, such as the Hamburg Natural History Society, the Viva La Casa refugee resettlement program, the Cooperative Extension Service, the Soil and Water Conservation District and a program to control feral cats in Buffalo.

County analysts got their first peek at his full budget Wednesday because his aides formally delivered it to the Legislature. The analysts found that while Collins asks others to do more with less, he's feathering his own nest with rewards for his appointees.

"At the same time the county executive is cutting a lot of worker bees, he's adding a whole lot of honey to the queen bees," said County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz, whose review will help guide lawmakers.

He said Collins budgets salary increases for his budget director, the social services commissioner, the health commissioner and the deputy county executive. Collins creates appointed posts in the Health and Social Services departments and health-related jobs in the jail division, since the U.S. Department of Justice has focused on the poor medical care provided to inmates at the Holding Center and the Correctional Facility.

"When you hire the best and the brightest, you should compensate the best and the brightest," Collins said when asked about raises for some of his department heads, such as Health Commissioner Anthony J. Billittier IV and Social Services Commissioner Michael Weiner.

He said Weiner supervises more than 3,000 employees and a $600 million budget and is "grossly underpaid" when applying his level of responsibility to the private sector.

"I cannot afford to lose my commissioner of social services," he said of Weiner, who was put in the job by then-County Executive Joel A. Giambra.
While Collins predicts a default budget, he is giving Legislature Democrats fodder for cuts, or at least grist for critical questions during hearings next week on the $1.027 billion spending plan, which does not include sales tax money that the county collects and distributes to other governments.

Collins would need eight of the 15 legislators to approve the budget and its property tax increase, and 10 of the 15 to raise fees by $600,000 to balance it.

The county executive says that he's certain the Legislature will deadlock and that the stars have aligned again for a default budget, 20 years after Gorski's.

"It could be in the realm of possibility," said Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, who wasn't in office in 1989. "It is going to be challenging. And it is even more challenging, given what is going on with the state and the stock market.

"We know there is no mood in the community to raise taxes. As I have already said publicly, legislators are not likely to expect constituents to pay more to get fewer services. Further reductions in expenditures and programs will have to be explored."

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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