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LEGISLATORS PLAY SANTA CLAUS IN FINAL ERIE COUNTY BUDGET; SOME ADDITIONS ARE MERITED, BUT CLEARLY NOT ALL

PROVIDED THERE are no surprises affecting spending in the last weeks of this year, the Erie County Legislature's changes to the 1991 county budget should not do much harm -- except to the notion of funding based on merit.

Administration officials probably will not be happy that the lawmakers are taking $850,000 from an expected year-end surplus of $3.6 million to help them fill the Christmas pork-barrel without raising County Executive Gorski's proposed tax rate.

Some of the accumulating surplus may well be needed to offset the impact of whatever Albany does to help balance the state budget. Still, it is unlikely the county would have need for all of that money by year's end. And the money cannot be used in 1991.

What the raid on this year's funds will do is leave less in the till to cushion the blow on taxpayers in 1992, which is the first year that surplus 1990 funds can legally be tapped. But in county politics, that is light years away and no match for the urge to please constituent groups now.

Questionable sources of revenue

Siphoning $100,000 from the county's $1 million self-insurance fund also is typical of annual maneuvering to fund pet projects. Some familiar with county government recall years in which funds later had to be transferred from other accounts because claims came in above budgeted amounts. If that happens in 1991, legislators should be ready to step forward with recommendations on where to make mid-year cuts.

Some of the Legislature's additions were worthwhile. For example, the $65,000 for Mercy Flight will help keep the helicopter ambulance service in business while also enhancing the odds that other counties will chip in to wipe out its deficit. The inclusion of a $6,250 down payment needed to borrow money for the Scajaquada Pathway project also is a step in the right direction.

Both amounts, however, fall below what lawmakers had planned to do. That is due at least in part to the propensity -- maintained in fine fashion this year -- to buy votes with a myriad of piddling increases or new allocations to community groups in the local district. That is again where this budget process fails.

Is funding these groups vital?

In some cases -- $750 for the Friends of the Woods? -- the money is just enough for a lawmaker to be able to say he helped. In others -- $5,000 for the Tonawanda Football Clinic? -- the role of county government in funding such a venture is highly questionable. Though small amounts individually, when taken in total, the additions amount to $314,600 at the same time county jobs are being cut and services reduced.

The 18 percent increase in the reimbursement paid to localities that plow county roads also seems extravagant, despite the threat of massive snow banks accumulating at town borders if localities refuse to plow. Gorski had recommended a nearly 7 percent hike which, when taken with last year's 10 percent increase, seemed an adequate increase to begin rectifying any underpayment.

The lawmakers balanced additions with cuts -- and the use of the surplus -- to make sure they did not increase the tax rate of $9.23 per $1,000 of assessed value that accompanied Gorski's $913 million spending plan, which drops to $912 million with the use of the surplus.

The county executive cannot touch the deletions. But he can veto the additions. He just might want to pick out a few of the more indefensible ones in a bid to cast doubt on the future viability of pork-barrel coalitions and bring a little more sanity to the process.

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