County Executive Joel Giambra has just spent tens of thousands of dollars on a multimedia campaign to convince the community that Medicaid is entirely responsible for the county's fiscal woes. Nothing could be further from the truth.
To be sure, Medicaid is a serious problem for New York State and its counties. Albany has an obligation to reform the program. But Medicaid has burdened counties heavily since the mid-1980s, and Erie County's worst fiscal crisis cannot be attributed to the ever-rising costs of Medicaid alone. It accounts only for a fraction of the blame. The responsibility for this crisis instead rests solely on the shoulders of Giambra and his disastrous fiscal policies.
In 1999, Giambra rode a 30 percent tax cut pledge to victory. Dennis Gorski predicted that Giambra's plan would wreck Erie County's budget. The Buffalo News called it risky. Erie County residents are about to suffer the consequences.
Consider this: Gorski left Giambra an $85 million surplus and $211 million won from his tobacco lawsuit. The $85 million is long gone, and the tobacco fund is nearly depleted. Erie County received an ill-conceived windfall of $57 million when Giambra sold ECMC to itself. That money is also gone, and the county now has a reported deficit of $135 million. Giambra's reckless spending also has added $238 million to the county's debt. That all adds up to a whopping $726 million.
Since Giambra took office, Erie County's contribution to Medicaid did not increase anywhere near the $726 million. In fact, Erie County's cumulative Medicaid costs increased by only $252 million. While that is a lot of money, it's nowhere near $726 million and certainly doesn't account for the enormous budget deficits that have caused the county executive to call for over $100 million in new taxes per year.
So what happened? Well, the county executive failed to match his tax cuts in 2000 with spending cuts. On the contrary, he went on a spending spree, padding the county payroll with hundreds of new jobs for his relatives, friends and cronies. He lavished himself and his appointees with new cars, refurbished offices and bought furniture that wasn't needed and cost too much. He purchased buildings and land from cronies that the county didn't need at inflated prices. He practically wiped out the county's reserves to pay for recurring expenses. And he failed to mind the store while the county's Aurora highway garage was looted.
As I said at the outset, the Medicaid issue needs to be resolved. But it is hardly the cause of Erie County's catastrophic budget deficit. Giambra has mismanaged Erie County to the brink of bankruptcy. Unfortunately, county taxpayers are about to feel the brunt of his wasteful spending and fiscal gimmickry.
Those terrible budget surpluses under a scandal-free Gorski administration -- castigated as imprudent by Giambra and frittered away in barely five years -- are looking better and better every day.
Democrat Jim Keane served as deputy county executive under Dennis Gorski.