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Default county budget isn't certain

The Democrats who control the Erie County Legislature took their first shots at Chris Collins' first budget Wednesday and concluded he's flat wrong on this much:

"It's very presumptive and premature on his part to assume this is going to be a default budget," said Legislator Betty Jean Grant, D-Buffalo.

Each Democrat quizzed Wednesday and in recent days disputed the county executive's prediction that his budget would pass by default because it inflicts too much pain to draw support from any bloc of eight lawmakers.

"He's a uniter," Legislator Michele M. Iannello, D-Kenmore, said of Collins. "I believe the county executive has united the Democrats to put forth a zero-tax-increase budget."

A few days ago, Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli didn't rule out a default budget, although they are rare. But now she, too, expects the Legislature to approve a budget before its deadline in December.

As they drill into the Collins proposal, and its 3.6 percent hike in the property tax rate, legislators are finding reason to change it:

*Each budget contains resolutions the Legislature approves to empower the county executive to implement the plan through the year. Collins deleted one resolution so he can raise the pay for his incoming appointees without Legislature approval, as county executives could do before 2007.

*Collins' budget might lead residents to think that some of the cultural groups denied aid next year didn't seek it, when, in fact, his department heads suppressed the requests. "Obviously we are getting calls," said Robert B. Reynolds, D-Hamburg.

*Collins needs nearly $600,000 more from county fees, with $300,000 to come from recording fees charged by the county clerk, $100,000 from rental fees at the parks and $130,000 from the golf courses. Every golf fee goes up an average 11 percent, and lawmakers expect complaints.

*Collins lavishes pay raises, some exceeding $10,000 a year, on a few department heads. The county executive says the raises are deserved. However, Collins budgets no contingency for unionized employees even though he's pursuing new contracts with their locals.

Members of the control board were puzzled by that Tuesday, when Budget Director Gregory G. Gach explained the proposal to them. Gach said Collins has demanded that any cost-of-living raises be offset, dollar for dollar, by changes in work rules, so any new labor agreement will not disrupt the 2009 budget.

Control board member Lou Thomas implied that Collins wasn't giving the unions reason to bargain. Legislator Thomas J. Mazur, D-Cheektowaga, drew the same conclusion Wednesday.

Collins seeks about 8 percent more in property tax revenue for county operations next year, when not figuring in the millions reserved for the library system. It would be the second-largest tax increase this decade, in a county charging the state's highest sales tax, 8.75 percent.

Roughly half of the increased property tax revenue would be fueled by rising property values and the other half by a higher tax rate: $5.12 for every $1,000 of assessed value, compared with $4.94 this year.

The higher tax rate adds $18 to the county tax bill on a $100,000 home, Collins says.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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