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$380,000 probation fee loss erodes budget

Erie County figured to collect at least $380,000 this year from people supervised by its Probation Department, and far more in future years if the program proved a success.

But in Albany last week, a conference committee co-chaired by Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, and a downstate Democrat ended its work without letting New York's counties charge such fees.

"We wanted it. The Assembly didn't. We just couldn't come to an agreement," explained Volker spokesman Craig J. Miller.

Since Jan. 1, the county's effort to save money has been sliding backward. Officials started out needing to find $40 million to avoid a tax increase in 2007 and begin restoring reserves.

But after spending money that had not been budgeted, surrendering $12.5 million in next year's sales tax proceeds to cities, towns and villages, and now facing the prospect of losing $380,000 in probation fees, county officials must save more than $54 million.

Volker and Assembly Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, had required Erie County to share more of its sales tax money, but the state lawmakers vowed to funnel at least $12.5 million more in state benefits back to Erie County. County leaders still expect them to deliver. "We are counting on Sen. Volker and Assemblyman Tokasz to live up to their promise," said County Legislator Kathy Konst, D-Lancaster.

A smattering of counties across New York, including Erie, have billed people on probation even though Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer has questioned their authority to do so with crimes other than driving while intoxicated. In his budget proposal, Gov. George E. Pataki tried to end any ambiguity about the question and clearly authorized the fees. The Republican-controlled Senate did so as well. The Democratic-controlled Assembly did not.

It fell to a conference committee on public protection, chaired by Volker and Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol, D-Brooklyn, to find compromises on this and on spending for departments such as the State Police, the Department of Correctional Services and the Division of Military and Naval Affairs. The panel did not agree to the probation fees, after critics raised questions of fairness and predicted that the charges might disproportionately hurt minorities.

"We are disappointed, definitely, that this was not accepted by both houses," said Mark LaVigne, a spokesman for the New York State Association of Counties, which had lobbied for the change. "Those who rejected it would rather have local taxpayers pay. We would prefer that those with the ability to pay fees be charged fees."

Budget officials hope that if the conference committee's decision stands, Erie County can win its authority to charge fees through a special state law aimed just at Erie, which had been their intention all along.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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