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ERIE COUNTY'S CASH CRUNCH NOT BEING HANDLED WELL

Erie County Executive Joel Giambra has enjoyed a very high performance rating since taking office. The voters have expressed confidence in what he has done, and his aspirations for a greater emphasis on regionalism and the subsequent cost savings by consolidations that would result. The electorate has responded with confidence in the county's chief executive, and rightly so. But events of the past couple of weeks have puzzled many, and suddenly questions are being raised and the answers have been less than satisfactory.

The county's financial status, which appeared solid and secure, in contrast to that of the City of Buffalo, is the center of current concern. The county, by its own figures, ended last year with a huge cash surplus of $51 million and an even bigger one of $85 million in 1999.

But then, out of the blue and with no prior warning, Giambra shocks the community with word that the county this year faces a deficit of $39.5 million. Not too many days later, this figure is revised downward and we are told that the county's projected budget gap will be $12 million.

A change in a state law that would save the county $4.5 million is cited as one of the factors for the revised guesstimate and the anticipation that the state will come up with $22 million in previously pledged funding. That would leave the anticipated shortfall at $13 million, not $12 million, but let's not quibble. I would anticipate that we'll be hearing some different numbers down the line anyway.

We are all aware that the events of Sept. 11 changed many factors in the budgets of New York State municipalities. Projected sales tax revenues had to be revised, and state funding delays and elimination of some state grants had to be anticipated. But even these cannot rationally explain the dramatic drop in Erie County revenues.

The Giambra administration has not been able to bring itself to admit that the 30 percent cut in county property taxes since 1999 plays a major role in its current problem and that the warnings that the reduction was too great might have been on the mark.

An analysis of Giambra's proposals to ease the financial crunch of the county is suspect. While some make eminent good sense, others he had to know in advance would never pass muster. He has been in politics and public office long enough to be fully aware that unions representing county employees would never approve his request to revise raises already approved, eliminate longevity increases and require that employees contribute to their health insurance costs.

Giambra likely put these factors into his cost-reduction plan knowing full well they would be dead on arrival. It's an old political ploy to make draconian proposals so when they are rejected, it is easier to gain approval for lesser givebacks. Politics never ceases to raise its head, and Giambra is not immune to playing the game.

While on the subject of county finances, why did County Comptroller Nancy Naples never utter one public word of warning about the county's so-called looming financial difficulties? Isn't that one of the roles of the independently elected comptroller? The city comptroller early on alerted the residents of Buffalo about the financial crunch the city was facing.

An interesting aside is the upgrading of county bonds earlier this month, just about the same time as the negative economic news was announced by Giambra. That upgrade by the bond rating company, of course, was based on the county's fine financial picture for 1999 and 2000. It confirms that the county indeed was doing very well and that its numbers withstood the rigid review of the rating institution.

The county executive can be faulted also for backing off on his previously fine gesture of committing $5 million in county funds to the first phase of Buffalo's school renovation and rebuilding plan. A generous and laudatory move when made, he's now saying the pledge is not in effect if the school project is under a Project Labor Agreement. That caveat was not made in his original pledge, and it should not be used as a hammer to negate a PLA, if that is the road that the Board of Education opts to take.

His stance is not one that enhances his credibility. He has not tied it to the county's so-called worsened financial picture. Instead it is predicated on his personal feelings about PLAs.

MURRAY B. LIGHT is the former editor of The Buffalo News.