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They called the county executive's "red budget" alternative a "red herring," a "scare tactic," "theatrics" and a "scorched-earth budget" during a public hearing attended by 700 residents Monday evening.

Eric Kaiser, 15, was one of the more than 90 people who had signed up to speak in the gymnasium of the Erie Community College South Campus.

"Thanks to the computers at the Hamburg Village Public Library, I was able to write this speech," he told 13 county legislators seated before him, reading from a typed sheet. "This scorched-earth budget would be a terrible blow."

"Public officials should take at least a 10 percent pay cut," added Jeffrey Gauthier,, 13, a student at St. Bonaventure School in West Seneca.

Before the hearing, 50 children marched outside with pickets urging county officials not to close the libraries.

The other large demonstration was put on by 200 firefighters and emergency service workers who crowded around John Wicka, legislative chairman of the Erie County Fire Advisory Board.

"The volunteer fire service in Erie County saves taxpayers more than $203 million a year," he said, "a savings of almost 19 percent in county property taxes."

Wicka said County Executive Joel A. Giambra's red budget would eliminate all fire and emergency services training, close the emergency services communications center and forfeit $30 million in funding for homeland security. He said it also would terminate the countywide public safety paging project, forfeiting $8 million in federal dollars.

"Can you hear us now?" Wicka shouted at the close of his remarks. At that moment, sirens began to wail from two dozen emergency vehicles with their lights flashing in the night.

Many speakers in the gym reluctantly advocated adopting Giambra's "green budget" alternative -- raising the 8.25 percent sales tax to 9.25 percent, which would generate 12 percent more tax money.

"Everybody agrees that the red budget is a scare tactic," said Joan Heubusch, a trustee of the Amherst Public Library. "It's unthinkable that the lights would be turned off and the doors locked."

Valerie Niederhoffer, of Buffalo, called the red budget "just a red herring," adding: "Giambra talks about being regional but he's been defeated at every turn. So he's given up."

Assunta Ventresca, director of health-related services for the Buffalo public schools, warned that 35,000 public and parochial schoolchildren would go without school nurses if the red budget is passed.

"The red budget has been theatrics from Day One," said Michael Bogulski, president of Local 815, Civil Service Employees Association. "So, raise property taxes. And cut deputy department heads and confidential assistants (whose salaries equate to) three rank-and-file jobs."

Out in the hallway, Deputy Director of Veterans Services Leon J. Colucci grumbled: "When I help a veteran get (federal) money, I actually take people off the welfare rolls. If I'm gone, it's going to cost us more money." Colucci, who donated $500 to Giambra's 2000 campaign, earns $49,452 a year.

Giambra needs 10 votes to pass his sales-tax increase and has asked legislators to vote Thursday, though at this point it's doubtful they will do so. A resolution he put before them blames the county's deficit on mandated contributions to the public employee pension fund and on Medicaid, its costs increasing at about 11 percent each year.

Giambra's resolution also says those two items create the $130 million deficit forecast for 2005. Actually, pensions will cost $50 million more and Medicaid $23 million more, with other rising costs adding to the deficit. The county can no longer pull money as needed from once-ample reserves.

The penny increase in sales tax would go before the State Legislature if enabling measures are introduced by Assembly Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, and Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew.

Mercedes Russow of Hamburg, a retired music teacher, brought the house down by quoting from Machiavelli, the 16th-century writer on pragmatic government. "I got this little book from the library," she told legislators. "He said don't make the masses hate you -- if you do, you'll be in big trouble. He said they'll forget their father's death before they forget the loss of their property."

News Staff Reporter Matthew Spina contributed to this report.


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