Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra revealed Wednesday that he privately has been pushing a sales tax increase since its public death in February, hoping it can take effect in June.
He has come away with the same result: Too little support in the County Legislature, even though most officials agree the government still budgets beyond its means -- $310,000 a day by one measure -- and needs a new source of income.
"Paralysis because of politics," Giambra calls it -- the inability to find the 10 county legislators needed to raise taxes, especially in an election year. It's deja vu all over again from four months ago, when legislative support for his new sales-tax penny withered under a taxpayer revolt.
At least five Republicans said Wednesday they aren't inclined to raise taxes to close the huge deficit that remains, and Giambra said he'd need "an epiphany" to get a bill to the State Legislature before its mid-June recess.
"My concern is there has always been a contingent of leaders that have wanted to fall back on the sales tax," said Elise M. Cusack of Amherst, one of five Republicans who consistently voted against increasing the 8.25 percent sales tax and were later punished by receiving less staff than the others.
"They are sabotaging true efforts at reform," she said, suggesting that officials draw a new formula in which more sales tax money remains with the county rather than flowing to municipalities and school systems.
"I would want to see government cleaned up as much as possible before I would see any revenue enhancement," said Legislator Barry A. Weinstein, R-Amherst, repeating the stance he took early this year.
"Cutting the last vestige of waste and patronage would certainly make it more palatable for the public," he said, later noting the Legislature still has not cut the salaries of its own staff so it can live within its reduced budget.
Republicans Denise E. Marshall of Lancaster and Minority Leader Michael H. Ranzenhofer of Clarence indicated they haven't changed their anti-tax positions. Giambra can still negotiate money-saving concessions from labor unions, Ranzenhofer said.
Jeanne Z. Chase of Eden, who helped get the first sales tax penny through some crucial votes in December, says she's not inclined to vote for it now.
Even if Giambra could pick up Republican votes, the Legislature's eight-member Democratic majority doesn't want to stick its neck out if a similar number of Republicans won't do the same. "It needs to be bipartisan," said Chairman George A. Holt Jr., D-Buffalo.
Meanwhile, the county's financial health has only worsened, slowing Giambra's attempts to gradually restore services. Comptroller Nancy A. Naples reported Tuesday that what she termed inflated sales tax estimates and other missteps put the government on course for a $113.5 million deficit this year. That's after legislators closed a $108 million imbalance by slashing jobs in the first weeks of the year.
Giambra told reporters Wednesday he disagrees with Naples' forecast, pointing to passages in which she admits it's "very preliminary" and "very early to determine an exact number." He disputed about half of her deficit projection and settled around $61 million, still huge if the county indeed plowed through all its savings in 2004, as Naples contends.
Giambra said he sees only two ways out: a sales tax increase of some size to close out the year, or deficit financing, an idea once broached by Naples. It involves a long-term loan to cover past deficits, then guaranteeing repayment with a new source of income, perhaps the property tax increase Giambra says he'll propose for 2006.
"The tax rate for Erie County is half the statewide average," he said, speaking just of county government, not school districts, towns or villages. "But guess what? Those days are over," he said.
Giambra said he's frustrated with the Legislature for failing to cut $14.1 million that both he and Naples say shouldn't be used in the 2005 budget, for not laying off workers early in the year when they needed to do so, and for failing to agree on a new tax. And he said he dislikes Naples' inconsistency; she says the government spends too much, but she's in court suing the county for the return of some of her laid-off workers.
Giambra's proposal to reopen the county parks may be dead, said Majority Leader Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda. In the current climate, too few lawmakers are willing to devote the $1 million needed to open nine parks, and a Legislature panel didn't endorse the matter Wednesday.
Only one restoration seemed likely. County Clerk David J. Swarts may have won the 10 votes he needs to raise the "cover page fee" charged on many office transactions from $5 to $15. That would allow him to reopen a downtown auto bureau and provide an estimated $1.1 million more for the government this year. The matter, bolstered by some lawmakers on the Government Affairs Committee, should go before the full Legislature next week.
If Giambra were to count up lawmakers willing to vote for a mid-year sales tax increase, he'd find one with Buffalo Democrat Albert DeBenedetti, who initially favored the new sales tax penny in December, then withdrew his vote in January when he said he saw the budget still sheltering pork and patronage.
DeBenedetti sees a mix of four options: a tax increase, more cuts in spending, deficit borrowing, and another request to Albany for help. But with the budget out of whack, a tax increase should be considered, he said.
"Anyone who suggests otherwise is being irresponsible," he said.