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Sound budget strategy Poloncarz takes a realistic approach with his first four-year financial plan

The four-year financial plan released by County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz spends more money than his predecessor and is slightly riskier, but it maintains funding of critical county services, which is a good part of why voters put him in office.

The previous plan called for about an $18 million budget surplus. Poloncarz would knock that down to about $13 million. That reduces the margin for error, but is the price to be paid for focusing on providing services.

Overall, this appears to be a reasonable spending plan, although there are a number of variables the new county executive needs to watch, while also treating the huge surplus he inherited with kid gloves.

Among the items that should please a lot of folks is a slight increase in funding for libraries. Voters made it clear last November they didn't like former County Executive Chris Collins' plan to slash funding for the libraries and set up a separate taxing district. The Poloncarz financial plan calls for a 1 percent increase each year in the portion of property tax revenue going to the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library.

Poloncarz has taken a more realistic stance than his predecessor on a couple of items. For example, the previous plan assumed about a 2 percent increase in property values each year. The new county executive reduced that amount to 1 percent, recognizing that the increase in property values in Erie County has been slowing for the last five years.

He also added another $3 million a year for overtime, starting in 2013, to more accurately reflect projected costs. Nothing extra was budgeted for overtime in 2012, which may create a problem this year.

On a cautionary note, Poloncarz's plan does not account for any additional expenses related to keeping the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The hope is that the $100 million or more in capital improvements to the stadium will come from the state. And Erie County Medical Center anticipates receiving $17.4 million from the county beyond the $16.2 million budgeted.

There still are no allocations for raises for the CSEA, the county's largest union. The payroll for CSEA members is in the range of $120 million to $130 million, so even a small raise would add up to millions in additional expense.

The county's healthy fund balance, which is about $100 million, shouldn't be the first place to look for any of these expenses.

Sure, there seems to be plenty of money in the bank. But the county has used the surplus to balance the budget three straight years, including $5.4 million for 2013. Taking money from this bank to pay recurring expenses is simply not good practice.

Poloncarz also did something that should please those whose jobs might have been on the chopping block in the previous administration's plan. Instead of eliminating 200 positions, Poloncarz wants to trim only 50 positions, mostly through retirements.

The changes mean the county is looking at spending an additional $9 million per year on salaries. Poloncarz needs to keep a close eye on that budget line to keep it under control.

Although we disagreed with many of Collins' spending decisions, he did leave the county in sound financial condition. The new financial plan continues that responsible stewardship.