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Erie County lawmakers unanimously approve $1.6 billion budget

The Erie County Legislature on Tuesday approved a $1.67 billion budget for next year that slightly reduces the property tax rate for the second year in a row and focuses more attention on the heroin and opioid epidemic that is contributing to the rising drug death toll in Erie County.

While the lawmakers cut five of the proposed budget’s 22 new positions, they left in funding for two new deputy sheriffs who will be focused on addressing the county’s heroin epidemic. The Legislature also agreed to fund another full-time staffer in the Medical Examiner’s Office, who will work to help reduce toxicology lab turnaround times for drug-death related cases.

Tuesday’s surprisingly swift budget approval came on the heels of a hearing last week in which a handful of parents, teachers and friends recounted the deaths of their children and childhood friends, concluding with emotional pleas for help in combating the rising number of deaths countywide associated with opioid drugs and heroin.

The overall county budget will still grow county spending and raise the property tax levy – the overall amount of tax money the county collects. But spending growth is increasing by only 0.7 percent. The tax levy will grow by about 5 percent, higher than in previous years, though County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz attributed the increase to a surge in new-home and commercial construction.

The property tax rate, however, will decrease from $4.99 to $4.96, per $1,000 of assessed value. That means the owner of a $100,000 home would see a $3 decrease on next year’s county property tax bill, assuming the home’s assessed value remained unchanged.

This year’s budget deliberations leading up to Tuesday’s vote were hailed as a “model process” by all sides. The Legislature unanimously approved the county budget without comment and in record time. The 20 minutes spent on approving the budget primarily consisted of Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo reading through 62 budget amendments.

“Everybody loves a tax decrease, so it was easy to get everyone to work with us on this,” Lorigo said.

Public safety and law enforcement saw noteworthy budget and personnel increases overall. After consultation with the sheriff’s department, the Legislature agreed to 41 new, part-time guards to the Erie County Holding Center – 25 more than the Sheriff’s Office originally recommended. The cost of those additional jobs is being offset by nearly equivalent cuts to the department’s overtime lines.

The Legislature also agreed to give the Comptroller’s Office two additional auditors and another cash management staffer in response to a consultant’s countywide risk assessment, started in March, that indicates oversight concerns.

Most cultural and community groups can expect to receive steady or growing county contributions. Poloncarz pledged more money to county libraries, and the Legislature submitted numerous amendments on Tuesday earmarking more than $540,000 in additional funds to support each legislator’s favorite cultural and community groups.

Refugee groups did not make out as well. The Legislature cut proposed funding in half for two refugee support organizations. Poloncarz had asked for $60,000 to support the Burmese Community Support Center, and $100,000 to support the Jericho Road Community Health Center, which provides health services to refugee and low-income residents. The Legislature amendments cut those allocations in half.

Much of the additional spending approved by the Legislature was offset by a $1 million cut to the county’s general liability fund. The budget leaves a mere $1 million to cover potential legal losses next year, when county liabilities generally range from $2 million to $4 million annually. County budget administrators, however, said that since the county expects a healthy surplus from this year’s budget, they will simply replenish the liability account later.

This year’s budget approval process was the smoothest in more than a decade, if not longer. That appears due in large part to the productive working relationship Poloncarz, a Democrat, enjoys with the conservative legislative majority, as well as lessons the majority learned from its budget process last year when it surprised the Democratic minority caucus with a number of last-minute amendments.

This year, the majority coalition spent several weeks compiling amendments, then began negotiating Monday evening with the county executive, the sheriff’s department, and the Comptroller’s Office. Horse trading with Poloncarz’s office resumed Tuesday morning when Poloncarz offered a series of budget trims in other areas to restore five of his 10 new staff positions that were on the chopping block. He also offered additional budget savings to offset new spending requests by Democratic legislators for various pet organizations.

“This budget and the process leading to today’s vote shows how local government can cooperate in a bipartisan manner that is free from acrimony,” Poloncarz said in a statement, “while still getting things done for our residents.”