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BUDGET DIRECTOR DELIVERS A CAUTIOUS SIX-MONTH ASSESSMENT OF COUNTY'S FINANCIAL HEALTH

The financial pulse of the sales tax is slow, and Erie County Medical Center's is irregular.

Social Services appears to be in in wonderful shape, but it's too early to tell.

This is the picture that emerges from the six-month financial report on the county by Budget Director Kenneth C. Kruly.

Overall, the county's fiscal health appears to the non-expert to be good, but Kruly is cautious. "For all funds, the net positive variance is $11.8 million," he said.

"Net positive variance" is money that the county has beyond its midyear budget expectations.

What is happening with the sales tax is predictable but not a delight to Kruly. It has entered a period of slow growth.

Attribute it to the the weak Canadian dollar, sales tax amnesty weeks for clothing and exempting textbooks from the sales tax. The county's share is down $838,999 from expectations in the first six months and, if this keeps up, will come in $1 million below the $206.5 million in the budget.

Kruly is opposed to the full-time amnesty on clothing and footwear that counties could enact starting Dec. 1, 1999, when the state sales tax on those items will end.

"If the tax is removed, it cannot be reimposed," said Kruly. "The annual loss would be $15 million to $16 million. We couldn't handle a loss like that."

The county's share of the loss would be 49 percent. The rest would be lost by cities, towns, villages and school districts in Erie County. "A number of cities and towns would lose in the six figures," said Kruly.

Erie County is in the first year of a three-year tax freeze, but tax collections are $2.8 million ahead of last year, although, as is usual, 15,000 to 20,000 property owners are in arrears.

ECMC and the Erie County Home are now merged, to the fiscal advantage of the former in a time of uncertainty for hospitals.

"Overall, ECMC is not doing as well as we would like it to do," said Kruly. "They are running a little better than anticipated, but part of that is because we increased our subsidy. It's our own money showing up.

"The amount the hospital owes the county is up considerably. Their financial problems are continuing. We have to negotiate new contracts with health-care providers. We're in a difficult situation."

County Comptroller Nancy A. Naples is more blunt about ECMC. She said the so-called "due-to," the amount ECMC is borrowing from the county, is at a record high.

"This constant open loan is $48.7 million. It's the highest it has ever been," said Ms. Naples. It was a little under $29 million in January 1997.

The bright spot fiscally is welfare, with $7.1 million more on hand than anticipated for mid-year.

"Last year, as of June 30, the net positive variance was $7.2 million," said Kruly. "This year it is $7.1 million."

Social Services' so-called "safety net program," for single persons forced off welfare, cost $2.7 million -- or almost 30 percent -- less than expected. Kruly said it is important to remember that the midyear report is incomplete.

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