The county executive assures taxpayers that, even if they get strapped with a higher sales tax, the government's belt would tighten with the loss of maybe 200 jobs.
But if Joel A. Giambra gets his way and a sales tax increase is enacted, budget documents portray little pain for the decision-makers -- the Erie County Legislature and the county executive.
Giambra's "green budget" -- the one financed with a higher sales tax, a new tax on motor vehicles and healthy optimism -- presents sacrifices that seem bearable for the Legislature and for Giambra's office on the 16th floor of the Rath County Office Building.
Giambra started 2004 with 15 jobs in his office, but the staff grew to 25 full- and part-timers with the addition of clerical workers, transfers from other departments and jobs financed entirely with federal homeland security dollars.
If the green budget went into effect -- and it's not even before the Legislature -- three jobs would be deleted and two workers would be transferred, leaving 20 people in Giambra's office, still five more than at the start of the year.
Those workers would earn a total of $1.24 million, slightly more than the $1.1 million allowed to start 2004 but less than the $1.4 million that will be spent.
County Budget Director Joseph Passafiume said the Giambra administration did not fill the vacancies created when workers were shifted to the 16th floor, so there was no increased cost to the taxpayer. "The growth in the county executive's budget was from other parts of the county," Passafiume said. "There was no increase countywide."
Giambra also says he is continuing to reduce the number of cars authorized for take-home use by employees. The overall passenger fleet will be decreased by 15, to 314.
The county executive cannot propose the green budget without state and county lawmakers adding a penny to the county's 4 percent sales tax, which goes atop the 4.25 percent levied by the state.
So he has proposed a "red budget" that sends nearly 90 percent of his staff out the door, along with 3,000 more workers governmentwide. Sheriff's deputies, probation officers, librarians, parks workers and clerical staff would be laid off.
Giambra would be one of only three workers still able to enjoy the view of Lake Erie from his office on the top floor. The others would be Deputy County Executive Carl A. Calabrese and a secretary.
The county executive says he needs an extra penny on the sales tax to close most of a $130 million deficit and help the county survive the crushing costs of the Medicaid health care program for its poor, elderly and disabled residents.
Giambra offers heady estimates for sales tax income, even before adding the penny. His budget assumes that the four pennies would generate $270 million for county coffers next year, but this year they are not even generating the $258 million that had been forecast.
Despite warnings about his continued use of reserves, both the red and green budgets rely on $17 million from the government's savings account.
"Even in the green budget," he said last week, "there will still be painful cuts. Even with a full penny of sales tax to pay for Medicaid and employee pensions, I will have to lay off more than 200 actual living, breathing county employees."
Like the county executive's office, the Legislature would suffer little in a green budget. It would keep its 66 full- and part-time employees -- one job and $80,000 a year more than authorized for 2004.
Lawmakers would keep their district offices and their $252,000 account for "other expenses."
At this point, legislators are not lining up to vote for higher taxes. Giambra needs a two-thirds vote, 10 members, to raise the sales tax. He also needs state lawmakers with influence in Albany to go along. So far, he has neither.
Who would lose a job in a green budget?
Budget-makers spread the pain around. The Board of Elections loses eight workers, the much-larger Sheriff's Department 26, and six employees would be lost in the district attorney's office. The Commission on the Status of Women loses one official, the Department of Social Services loses 21 and the Parks Department a couple.
The loss of 200 jobs prunes less than 1 percent of the 10,000 employees under the county government umbrella and does little to change the abnormally high number of local government employees in Western New York and all of upstate.
The Public Policy Institute, the research arm of the State Business Council, says upstate overall has 75,000 to 95,000 more local government employees than the national average.
If Erie and Niagara counties could do without about 4,300 employees above the norm for all levels of government, their taxpayers could save $200 million a year, the institute says.