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FIERY CROWD SPEAKS OUT ON SAVING COUNTY SERVICES

Save the parks, save the probation officers, the road-patrol deputies, the zoo, and most of all, save those libraries.

"The libraries are being used more than ever," said Elizabeth Berry, president of the group "Save Our Libraries," which sent a small army of members and like-minded folks to the first hearing on Erie County's budget mess.

Even during the Great Depression, no libraries were closed, she told nearly 450 people gathered Monday at Lancaster Middle School.

The crowd waved signs and placards, applauded each reference to the county's need to better manage its money and had nothing good to say about County Executive Joel A. Giambra, who presented a disastrous budget for 2005 in the hopes it wouldn't be adopted.

This morning, Giambra changed course, slightly, in an attempt to win the sales tax increase needed to stave off financial doom. He said if county and state lawmakers insist he share the income with towns, villages, cities and schools, he will do so -- not by sending them a check but by helping them provide their services.

"We don't have the money to hand out checks," he said. "But we must make an effort to share services, solve problems, lift the burdens and help eliminate duplication."

Without a sales tax increase, Giambra proposes to end nearly every service not mandated by the state or federal governments or the county charter. His budget contains no aid for the arts, culture, dozens of local charities and the zoo. He would lay off 3,000 workers, including prosecutors, deputies, probation officers and clerks for the auto bureaus, closing two.

Giambra agrees his "red budget" would drive people away, unlike the "green budget" he drafted to show how the status quo could be protected by adding a new penny to the sales tax, bringing it to 9.25 percent in Erie County. He needs 10 county lawmakers to go along, plus state approval.

At Monday's hearing, Dorothy Johnson of Cheektowaga spoke on behalf of preserving funding for the Buffalo Zoo. "If the county executive and the Legislature cannot come up with anything better than this red budget, it's time to find somebody who can," she said. "Let's ship them out, not the animals."

Some people said they were willing to pay more taxes for some services. And some county employees tried to stress the threat to public safety if certain jobs are lost. But an anti-tax sentiment often broke through.

"I am being impacted by all the taxes in New York State," said Lee Chowaniec, a retiree from Lancaster. "You cannot continue to pick my pockets and the people in my age group on fixed incomes . . . Especially for the seniors -- please -- enough is enough," he said.

Unlike the other 62 counties, Erie County cut its property taxes by a third at the start of the decade, then held them flat, hoping Western New York would pull out of the recession that ended the 1990s. As Medicaid rolls swelled and the county took on large-scale projects that had been planned for years, it drained reserves and much of the fortune obtained from the tobacco settlement.

"I think it's up to you guys here to set Mr. Giambra straight," Jane Wiercioch of the Depew-Cheektowaga Taxpayers Association told the 12 of 15 county lawmakers attending the hearing. "I think he's been a big failure," she said.

Marilla Town Supervisor John Foss said it will be up to county lawmakers to restore spending for what's important. "If you've got to raise taxes, then raise them," he said, triggering a resounding "No" from a group in a corner of the room.

Some of the many speakers who favor restoring money for the 52 libraries thought it should be attempted without immediately raising taxes.

"If the Legislature desires credibility, if the Legislature cares the least bit about its constituents, and if the Legislature desires public support for a tax increase," said Albert E. Martin of Lancaster, "then the Legislature must begin the process by eliminating the hundreds of political patronage jobs."

Adam Troidl bought his first home this year, in Cheektowaga.

"To suggest that this year's budget problems were unforeseen is ridiculous," he said, "and to further suggest that the only solution to this problem is to raise taxes is absurd."

County lawmakers are in quiet negotiations over whether to raise the sales tax. Weeks ago, before anyone had heard of the red budget, few, if any, lawmakers would say they favored a higher sales tax. Now, at least 10 are discussing the conditions under which they'll support it.

Democrats and Republicans are working independently on new budget versions. Giambra can veto spending they add, not spending they delete. If lawmakers don't OK a budget by Dec. 7, the red budget passes by default.

"Obviously there was a lot of rage coming out toward the end tonight," Majority Leader Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, said late Monday. "I can feel that with people."

email: mspina@buffnews.com

More hearings

The Erie County Legislature will hold three more public hearings on the 2005 budget:

Tonight at Erie Community College City Campus, 121 Ellicott St.

Monday at ECC South Campus, Room 5101, 4041 Southwestern Blvd., Orchard Park.

Next Tuesday, Nov. 30, at Clarence Public Library, 3 Town Place.

All of the meetings start at 6 p.m.

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