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Hard control board seems likely County set to miss deadline for fiscal plan

Erie County government -- especially its unions -- is staring down the barrel of the hard control board that probably will be imposed if lawmakers fail Friday to adopt a four-year financial plan.

Right now, legislators appear unlikely to enact the forecast the control board expects by Saturday.

The Legislature appears to lack a simple majority of eight members willing to endorse County Executive Joel A. Giambra's plan, which calls for a 50 percent property tax increase over two years, expensive deficit financing and a barrage of new fees for parks, golf courses and licenses, among other things.

A handful of legislators, most in the Democratic majority, want to lessen the property tax increase and the need for deficit borrowing by raising the sales tax, currently totaling 8.25 percent, to 8.75 percent or 9 percent.

That, they reason, also would help to phase in the fee charged to towns relying on Sheriff's Department road patrols, rather than delivering all the pain next year, as Giambra proposes.

Under their prospective plan, the sales tax rate then would recede over four years, while the property tax rate would increase. Proponents would try to win the state permission they need for a sales tax increase as soon as possible, without waiting until next year when a new Legislature gavels itself into session.

Lawmakers, however, need 10 votes to win a sales tax increase and they now have only nine.

Six members are firmly opposed, including two who had agreed to raise the sales tax by a quarter of a percent July 1. Both Timothy M. Wroblewski, D-West Seneca, and Steven P. McCarville, R-Orchard Park, say the Giambra plan emphasizes higher taxes over belt-tightening. Both indicate they won't raise taxes.

If the Legislature balks, what then? The seven state appointees who constitute the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority are scheduled to meet next Thursday. If the Legislature remains deadlocked, they could begin "a control period" -- the term used in the state law establishing the board.

Saturday "is a very important date," said control board Chairman Edward V. Regan, who said he would rather avoid a control period.

"It's a one-card deck of cards. You play it, and you're done," he said, meaning the mere threat of a hard control board might go further in pushing officials toward reforms. He also noted the amount of time Buffalo's control board spends in court fights against the city's unions and worries about the cost.

But Regan said the panel has no power to change the law, which says that if the Legislature doesn't submit a four-year plan, the control board "shall impose" a control period. So does the early draft of a document being prepared by the board's staff to guide members and the public on what happens if Giambra and the Legislature miss their deadlines.

In a control period, the county control board would look a lot like the one overseeing Buffalo's finances, unable to raise taxes on its own but able to give elected leaders strong nudges in certain directions. It would be able to set spending levels, impose a wage and hiring freeze, review and approve labor contracts and do whatever is needed to implement the financial plan.

Which plan? Most likely Giambra's. It was proposed by Giambra but written in large part by the PFM Group, the control board financial consultant earning an average $40,000 a week in taxpayer money. In other words, the board's own consultant endorses the charge for road patrols, eliminating the subsidy for Erie County Medical Center and asking unions to return benefits involving health insurance, summer hours and paid lunch breaks.

Regan says he likes the document, and his voice resonates on the panel. He also likes the idea of deficit financing -- borrowing $46.5 million to help patch the deficit projected for next year. The control board would arrange the loan, if county leaders request it, and that loan again would change the political landscape.

The control board would remain active for at least the 13 years the loan is outstanding. It also would shadow legislators into the 2007 election, when Democrats hope to retake the county executive's office and don't want the new leader heeding the demands of a Republican-dominated panel.

Giambra is scheduled to present his budget Oct. 15. If the Legislature can't amend and approve it by a December deadline, then his proposal and any property tax increase it contains becomes law.

email: mspina@buffnews.com

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