The Erie County Legislature ended its 2005 business Friday, closing perhaps the most tumultuous year in its history and handing the county's tender financial state over to a majority of newcomers eager to get cracking in January.
One of the nine newcomers, Democrat Kathy Konst of Lancaster, announced minutes before the Legislature's session that she wants to be chairwoman because the voters, she said, do not want today's leaders at the helm again in 2006.
"The public has spoken," Konst said, "and legislators would be turning a deaf ear if they elect a legislator from the past regime."
While Konst made her intentions official Friday, she has been in the fray for about a week. So far, only Cynthia Locklear, an incoming Democrat from West Seneca, has pledged to vote for her. However, few lawmakers are actually saying who they support in the four-way, behind-the-scenes race for chairman.
Four Democrats want to occupy one of the most powerful jobs in county government, which would let them hire and fire all Legislature staff and decide which items come up for a vote. Aside from Konst, there's Majority Leader Lynn M. Marinelli of the Town of Tonawanda, newcomer Thomas J. Mazur of Cheektowaga and current Chairman George A. Holt Jr. of Buffalo.
Little business was accomplished Friday. Since a procedural rule bars a legislature from amending the next year's budget before the new year begins, lawmakers set aside County Executive Joel A. Giambra's requests to fix the 2006 spending plan in small ways that would not have changed the bottom line.
Heeding the rule, legislators also balked at Giambra's request to place Interim Comptroller James M. Hartman into a $95,000-a-year job as director of management initiatives. Hartman would be in charge of saving the government money in the ways suggested by the state-appointed control board, its financial adviser and Giambra.
Hartman can move into a vacant job in Giambra's office when Democrat Mark Poloncarz takes over as comptroller in January. But the vacant post pays about $73,000, not the $95,000 salary Hartman and Giambra discussed. It will be up to the new Legislature to raise Hartman's pay and make it retroactive to Jan. 1.
The 15 legislators agreed to let the Social Services Department tap into a new state computer system so it can better investigate Medicaid fraud. Erie County wants to embark on a state program that will let a few counties begin investigating Medicaid vendors, not just Medicaid recipients.
The final session of the year took on a ceremonial tone, as legislators read proclamations honoring youth football teams and constituents with special accomplishments. Then lawmakers bade farewell to the seven among them who chose not to run again and the two who lost at the polls.
"I don't think anyone would deny this has been one of the most difficult years in the history of the Erie County Legislature," said Minority Leader Michael H. Ranzenhofer of Amherst, who will return next year.
The Legislature began the year with a budget horribly imbalanced because it would not approve a sales tax increase. Jobs were slashed, parks and then libraries closed, deficits were projected, and then set higher, the state comptroller weighed in, a state control board arrived.
Taxpayers were bitter. A midyear sales-tax increase helped close this year's deficit, and another sales tax hike and a boost in the property tax will close the deficit projected for next year.
Still, there were fond memories Thursday for the many years some lawmakers had served. The total years of service among the nine departing legislators was figured at anywhere from 102 to 110.
Like projecting a deficit, the number was open to interpretation. "It seemed that this past year was 110," said Edward J. Kuwik, a Lackawanna Democrat who has been on the Legislature since 1983 and urged next year's lawmakers to cooperate among themselves and with the county executive.
"I think we did what was right for the residents of Erie County," Kuwik said. "I will remember this year for sure."
Buffalo Democrat Albert DeBenedetti did not rise for a final speech. "I probably would have got a little choked up," he said later.
"In looking back, I realize what an extraordinary opportunity I have had for 14 years, to be an elected official, to represent 60,000 people," he said.
At 70, Cheektowaga Democrat Raymond K. Dusza has often been less-guarded than younger lawmakers. He announced in March that he would not run again, calling this year the worst he he had seen in terms of public anger directed at lawmakers.
Dusza read a short speech that looked back on 16 years in office, at the item-pricing law he championed and the helmet law for young bicyclists he fought for, among other things.
"It is with mixed feelings of sadness and satisfaction that I conclude today by saying that my mission is complete. . . ."
Dusza tried to go on.
"No tears, Ray," said Buffalo Democrat Demone A. Smith, to help him continue.
Dusza, his face red and braced against the tears, finished his closing sentence. "This veteran paratrooper has reported for duty for the last time in these chambers."
Then he sat down to a standing ovation.