Six months into the deepest financial crisis in Erie County history, neither the County Legislature nor the county executive has demonstrated a clear understanding of the impact of draconian personnel and spending cuts, the willingness or ability to responsibly confront the crisis or how to restore basic services with current resources. Their failed leadership and fiscal irresponsibility have harmed everybody in the county.
The Legislature's "cut now, ponder later" reaction to pressure from angry taxpayers has left behind a mess. Some of the cuts have crippled county operations that actually produce revenue. Legislators made cuts with an ax, not a scalpel, and a startling lack of information.
A moderate property tax increase -- as distasteful as that would have been -- still would have left county property taxes below most other upstate counties. Instead, faced with County Executive Joel Giambra's choice of enacting one of the highest sales taxes in the country or decimating county services, the legislators chose the latter. Giambra, who refused to call for a property tax increase as he ran through the county's reserve fund, thought that his scorched earth "red budget," which wiped out most discretionary spending, would turn voter anger toward the Legislature in Albany. If Giambra figured that would shame the state into granting the county sufficient Medicaid relief to close a 2005 budget gap north of $100 million, or would give county legislators political cover to grant a full penny increase in the sales tax, to 9.25 percent, he was woefully incorrect.
Voters in an overtaxed county in an overtaxed state made it clear to their county legislators that they did not want to pay more taxes. Nine legislators went out on a limb for the extra penny, but no legislator wanted to commit what was seen as political suicide by providing the 10th vote, which the state delegation in Albany demanded in order to get the increase through the State Legislature.
Which brings us to our present state, a painful mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. County spending has, in fact, been cut, from nearly $1.2 billion to about $958 million, and the number of county employees has gone from a 2004 peak of nearly 9,000 to about 7,100. But there are closed parks, long lines at the one surviving county Auto Bureau and questions about policing and snowplowing. The legislators who slashed the budget did so with an eye only on numbers. Even worse, County Comptroller Nancy Naples now estimates that the county -- even after budget cuts saving $108 million -- is on track to run up a 2005 budget deficit of $113 million.
So taxpayers are left with this conundrum: How can they enjoy the basic quality-of-life amenities that governments are supposed to provide -- and which businesses look for in making site decisions -- without unduly adding to an unbearable tax burden? The problem is that taxpayers don't have enough information to even begin to answer that riddle. That doesn't mean the taxpayer revolt should come to an end. It does mean that the elected officials who run county government have to differentiate between politics and governance, and begin to manage available financial resources while delivering needed services as efficiently as possible.
Before this community can begin the governmental repairs that are so desperately needed, it needs the tools to start the job. Chief among those tools should be a comprehensive operations study by non-political experts, defining what services are provided and whether they can be delivered more efficiently.
With reserve funds exhausted and mandated costs rising, Erie County may not be able to avoid tax hikes next year. But taxpayers need evidence that more taxes really are the only alternative, and they have made it clear that they don't want higher taxes or service cuts dictated by politics and patronage.
The audit now under way by State Comptroller Alan Hevesi's office will be helpful, as will a study by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. But a broader and deeper operational perspective likely will be needed to truly reform county government.
Such an undertaking is clearly beyond the ability of county legislators more interested in re-election prospects than in re-engineering government. If you needed any further evidence of that, the Legislature as of Wednesday still had not implemented the cut in staff salaries it promised in March.
It is time for the county to commission an outside, independent study by acknowledged experts in municipal government. Such a study should be based on governmental functions, not on governmental jurisdictions. It should be taken out of political hands and done by an experienced independent organization -- the Center for Governmental Research or the National Academy of Public Administration, for example.
Give us a tool to measure progress so that one day we might have progress to measure.
MONDAY: The fix begins in Albany.