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PUBLIC HEARINGS TO SEEK BUDGET PRIORITIES

Light the libraries. Repair the roads. Protect the public. Comfort the poor. Let the curtains rise again and again. Spare the taxpayer further harm.

Advocates for all those items insist theirs deserves priority, but Erie County doesn't have the money to do it all in 2005.

Every county lawmaker hearing the crescendo of disdain for County Executive Joel A. Giambra's scorched-earth budget says he or she wants to change it in some way, even if they disagree about whether to raise property or sales taxes.

Come Monday, the effort to devise a new budget turns in earnest to the public, with the start of four hearings. The first will be at 6 p.m. Monday in Lancaster Middle School auditorium, 148 Aurora Road.

That's followed by a hearing at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Erie Community College City Campus, 121 Ellicott St.; at 6 p.m. Nov. 29 at ECC's South Campus, 4041 Southwestern Blvd., Orchard Park; and at 6 p.m. Nov. 30 in Clarence Public Library, 3 Town Place.

"We want to know what is important to taxpayers, what they are willing to accept," said Majority Leader Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda.

"Most people aren't sitting around their dinner table saying, 'Do we have enough prosecutors in Erie County?' But is that important to them?" she said.

In that vein, Marinelli said, do they want to make sure the county clerk's office has the money needed to do business with the public? Then there are parks, patrol deputies, human services agencies.

Assuming the Legislature has the will to raise taxes, she says, are residents willing to pay more for favored programs?

Erie County is in a jam because it cut property taxes by a third and then held them flat for three years while many costs, particularly the state-mandated Medicaid program, grew. The county can no longer pull from its savings account as needed, and the credit agencies will scold it again if budget handlers rely on a one-shot remedy, such as borrowing against one of its assets, as it did with Erie County Medical Center.

Meanwhile, the county borrowed to create a new Public Safety Center and to repair roads and bridges, among other things. To meet state rules that counties provide suitable courtrooms, Erie County built a Family Court center and modernized existing space in Old County Hall -- projects envisioned before Giambra took office. Documents show the bond debt will reach $441 per person in 2005, more than twice its level five years ago.

Even Giambra doesn't want the Legislature to approve his proposed budget and is trying to win the 10 votes needed to raise the sales tax by a penny, which would become effective March 1, raising $109 million in the first year and $120 million or more in successive years. Without it, he offers a budget that cuts myriad services not mandated by the state or federal governments or by the county's charter.

He has evoked an outcry for the Legislature's first round of budget sessions this week. Department heads and stakeholders paint panoramas of doom if they are left with so little to spend.

"We may as well raise the white flag," said Probation Commissioner George B. Alexander.

"Even mandated services, such as snowplowing and code compliance will be greatly reduced," said Public Works Commissioner Maria C. Lehman. ". . . Public Works cannot meet its safety mission."

"Rescue us from an inevitable, certain death," said Celeste M. Lawson of the Arts Council in Buffalo and Erie County, one of many speakers Wednesday trying to win back $5.6 million for arts and cultural groups.

For public safety, are taxpayers willing to restore $12 million to the Sheriff's Department for a police presence countywide? How about $6.5 million to District Attorney Frank Clark's office to ensure criminals are convicted and $5.6 million to the Probation Department to supervise offenders?

All that would require about a 15 percent increase in property taxes, or two-tenths of a cent more on the sales tax. But that doesn't cover the Department of Central Police Services, which provides technical help to police agencies, or the Department of Emergency Services.

Do taxpayers want to restore $5.3 million for the Department of Parks and Recreation? That's less than 5 percent more in property taxes. Aid to the arts groups would need a similar increase.

Do taxpayers agree that Albany should change the rules for the Medicaid program? Republicans pointed out Wednesday that unlike most people on employer-sponsored health plans, Medicaid recipients are spared co-pays for prescription drugs, primary care visits, emergency room care, emergency transportation, non-emergency transportation and dental services.

Or do taxpayers believe that since they reside in the nation's highest-taxed state, they should not have to pay more in sales taxes or property taxes?

Nearly 13 percent of the income earned by residents feeds their state and local taxes, according to the Tax Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Property taxes across all governments in Erie County already reach 42 percent above the national average, and Erie County has hundreds more local government workers than the national average.

"I'm not going to vote for any kind of a tax increase," said Legislator Denise E. Marshall, R-Lancaster. "This area is already overtaxed."

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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