Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra submitted a tenuous four-year financial plan for County Legislature and control board approval. Given the choices, none of them good, this looks like a decent start.
The only way to have presented a less-iffy plan would have been to immediately raise taxes by at least 50 percent. As it is, the plan calls for a 25 percent increase in property taxes, establishment of new fees and increases in existing ones. Given that property taxes stayed flat for seven years, that's not a huge amount when annualized. The plan also relies on $13.5 million in savings next year by eliminating the Erie County Medical Center's subsidy, which is already subject to court challenge. And after all that, it still requires $46.5 million in borrowing, nearly one-third of the total projected deficit. The plan was crafted working with PFM, the control board's financial consultant. Its involvement builds confidence in the plan.
Some amount of borrowing is probably unavoidable and, indeed, inevitable under the circumstances. Had the county simply raised taxes enough to close the entire $140 million 2006 deficit, it would likely have foreclosed on the possibility of finding efficiencies that may take time to produce, through labor negotiations or changes in state law and county charter. By borrowing money this year, the county can keep alive the possibility of creative reform and better management initiatives that we can watch for in the future.
That doesn't mean the plan is perfect. Some control board members acknowledge borrowing will probably be needed, but they express skepticism about the amount proposed. The control board should be sure the county squeezes out every other bit of savings and finds revenue increases before it signs off on a $46.5 million loan. A small increase in the sales tax might be worth advocating as well.
Another good idea is to compare the plan to the Buffalo Niagara Partnership's recent report on reducing the costs of Erie County government. There's no time like the present to begin changing old habits.