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Legislators have plan, with details to come

The Erie County Legislature today is expected to stave off a hard control board, perhaps for just a month or so, by approving a four-year plan it can't make good on -- not yet anyway.

The Legislature will approve a plan including a sales tax hike with only eight or nine votes, not the 10 needed to raise the tax so lawmakers can lessen the property tax increase and eliminate the expensive borrowing the county executive proposed 17 days ago.

But the Legislature's gambit will buy time, possibly allowing members to push some of their difficult decisions beyond Election Day.

"It is what it is. It buys time for the Legislature," responded control board Chairman Edward V. Regan, reached in New York City late Thursday. "We'll discuss it."

He agreed a proposal to raise the sales tax should come from 10 lawmakers, the two-thirds majority needed to enact the tax down the road. But he said his board probably wants to avoid becoming a hard control board if members can legitimately do so.

If the Legislature and County Executive Joel A. Giambra fail to advance some sort of plan by Saturday, the control board would change from an advisory body to one with teeth, able to freeze wage increases, reject labor contracts and force the government to economize, essentially duplicating the role of a legislature.

Once the control board receives the four-year plan -- regardless of whether it's a good one -- the control board examines it for two weeks. If board members don't like the plan, it bounces back to the Legislature for two more weeks.

That would stretch the process to the start of November. Legislature Chairman George A. Holt Jr. hopes that by then, he might be able to find a 10th lawmaker willing to vote for a higher sales tax. While lawmakers backing the tax would probably have to commit themselves before Election Day, Nov. 8, the formal votes needed to actually enact the tax would occur later.

Right now six of the 15 legislators are firmly opposed to any tax increase. Two members who agreed to raise the sales tax from 8 to 8.25 percent on July 1 said they won't raise it further. They are Republican Steven P. McCarville of Orchard Park and Democrat Timothy M. Wroblewski of West Seneca.

Legislators want to avoid two aspects of the plan Giambra proposed: the 50 percent property tax increase spread over two years, and borrowing $46.5 million to help patch the 2006 deficit. That loan would cost about $66 million to repay over 13 years.

Some lawmakers, particularly the Democrats who control the Legislature, reason that by raising the sales tax they can avoid deficit financing and lessen the property tax hike.

Majority Leader Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, said raising the sales tax from 8.25 to 8.75 cents on the dollar would let the 2006 property tax increase fall from 25 to 16 percent, adding about $68 a year to the tax bill on a home assessed at $100,000.

She said she's also hoping that when the Legislature expresses its will today, Giambra will then adjust the 2006 budget he will propose Oct. 15 to align more with the Legislature's wishes than with his proposed four-year plan. Giambra did not return phone calls seeking comment Thursday.

The Legislature -- which meets at 2 p.m. in Old County Hall -- is unaccustomed to difficult financial decisions during the campaign season. In recent years, the county executive proposed his budgets after Election Day, and the Legislature had to approve or rewrite them by a December deadline.

The presence of a state-appointed control board changes that. The control board, which convened in August to right county finances, expected Giambra and the Legislature to agree on a four-year forecast of revenues and expenses by Oct. 1.

Lawmakers also reason that with a sales tax increase, they can gradually phase in a charge to small towns that rely on Sheriff's Department road patrols. Giambra had wanted to assess that fee all at once, next year.

As for the subsidy to Erie County Medical Center, which Giambra wants to eliminate, legislators will say ECMC should remain open and accessible, then address its needs in the 2006 budget.

Marinelli said lawmakers know they must approve a balanced budget, but they are looking at the four-year plan as just a plan and not a detailed line-by-line statement of spending to come.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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