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Start saving now, control board tells county Advisory panel issues recommendations after clash of chairman, assemblyman

Erie County's control board put its spurs to county government Thursday, urging the Legislature and county executive to start saving money quickly this year and offering ways to do so.

Edward V. Regan, board chairman, said he had just addressed another gathering of citizens and heard the same message about county government: "Disappointment with everybody who has anything to do with it."

"They also want leadership. And this board, with the actions we are going to take, is going to provide leadership," said Regan, who appeared shaken by a shouting match minutes earlier with an assemblyman who criticized the board's rate of spending.

After Lee Van Riper, the panel's executive director, rattled off ways the Legislature and County Executive Joel A. Giambra could save money immediately -- with no consent needed from unions or the state -- the panel agreed to send the list to lawmakers and suggest they pursue the proposals at once.

Board members also expected their financial consultant, the PFM Group, to expand the list by a dozen recommendations. Together, the ideas could save an estimated $4 million a year.

They include:

* Canceling office leases and bringing county workers into county-owned space. The PFM Group figures that could save $800,000.

* Selling advertising in county parks and on county-owned structures, which could bring in $1 million a year.

* Managing the workers' compensation program more effectively by hiring a risk manager within county government, which would save $277,000 next year, according to the four-year plan developed by PFM and Giambra.

* Merging the Department of Emergency Services with the Department of Central Police Services. Its savings weren't specified.

* Establishing a central bureau to collect past-due bills owed the county, to bring in about $800,000. Legislators, however, had examined this Giambra proposal early this year and concluded potential income had been overstated.

The board, consisting of seven state appointees, agreed that focusing on these measures now increases the likelihood they will be in effect by Jan. 1 to save money during the next budget year, when the county faces a deficit exceeding $100 million.

All seven members attended the control board meeting, including Anthony Baynes, an Amherst businessman recently appointed to replace former State Budget Director Carole Stone, who has been unable to attend the sessions.

The initiatives are addressed in the four-year plan Giambra has put before the Legislature, which must decide by Oct. 1 whether to accept it. With that deadline, the control board wasn't expected to prod the Legislature so soon.

If lawmakers miss their deadline, Regan's state-appointed panel can become a "hard" board, able to freeze pay raises for workers and force officials to economize. Until then, the law establishing the "fiscal stability authority" says it is to be advisory.

Regan, however, said nothing in the law bars the board from pushing the Legislature.

"It is important to find out just where people stand," he said.

If the Legislature doesn't act?

"It's better to find out now than later. I don't think that will be the reaction," he said.

But when asked if he thought the control board was destined to become a hard board, his hunch was that it would stay soft.

"The Legislature has to know that the public is fed up. . . . Ultimately they are there because they serve the public," he said.

Legislature Majority Leader Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, agreed with that point but little else Regan said Thursday. After attending the meeting in the Erie Community College City Campus, she called the control board out of line.

"He was castigating all of us duly electeds as though we have had a tin ear to the public, and that is patently unfair," she said.

Marinelli said she has been knocking on doors in her district and has a good sense of where her constituents stand on matters of taxation and the services they want to protect.

"And I would even expect that those who are not running still have a pretty good sense of what their constituency is telling them. I took umbrage at his characterization of that," she said.

"We have until Oct. 1, which is a Saturday. We are the ones who are duly elected. They are not duly elected. They are appointed to serve," she said. "And right now they are to be advisory."

Any honeymoon period between the two groups seems to be over. Regan said last week that, in light of their past inaction, lawmakers should be forced to phase in Giambra's proposed 50 percent property tax increase over two years because if they levy it in just one year, they will forget about the need for long-term reforms.

Legislators, meanwhile, have criticized the control board for its expensive staff and consultants.

Assemblyman Mark J.F. Schroeder, D-Buffalo, a former county legislator, began a news conference outside Erie Community College on Thursday by criticizing the board for agreeing to pay an average $40,000 a week to PFM under the equivalent of a no-bid contract and budgeting $325,000 for four staff members -- all at taxpayer expense.

At that point, Regan approached, and the men bickered, with Regan denying any no-bid contracts and saying he had tried to contact Schroeder, but Schroeder hadn't called him back.

Later, both said they would set aside the confrontation and meet today over coffee.

"I kind of got a little anxious outside," Regan said as he started the control board meeting. "I started to get mad, and I didn't mean to. He's a good guy, and if he's in the room, I apologize."

As the meeting drew to a close, the board decided to save an $80,00-a-year salary: Van Riper will go without a deputy director and remain at $110,000 a year.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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