County Executive Joel A. Giambra next month will tell towns relying primarily on the Sheriff's Department for police protection that they must start paying for the service in 2007.
His letter is likely to again incite protests from certain town leaders, who will argue that police protection is one of the few county services they receive. They have an ally in Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, who ran for election in 2005 as a critic of the idea.
The County Legislature last year agreed to start charging for road patrols in 2007. So far, there is no indication that this year's Legislature will back away, even though nine of the 15 members are new to office.
"The message will be a fairly firm one," said James M. Hartman, Giambra's point man on efforts to cut costs and avoid a tax increase for 2007. "They will have to either enter into a contract with the Sheriff's Department, or they will lose the service."
The Legislature agreed to phase in the $5.4 million cost of road patrols over three years, so towns could be charged a total of $1.8 million next year. Hartman said the money will be collected or the road patrol budget will be trimmed accordingly.
"One way or another, we will either receive the revenue or make the appropriate cuts," he told a collection of lawmakers Thursday, as the county's first financial quarter drew to a close and legislators sought a status report on efforts to save money for 2007.
The 2005 budget year was such a disaster that it triggered four tax increases, the state created a control
board to monitor Erie County's finances, and a consultant charged $860,000 to create a four-year forecast and show leaders how to save money or raise fees to support the bureaucracy.
While tax hikes balanced the 2006 budget, county leaders initially needed to find about $40 million in savings so they could keep taxes flat in 2007 and start restoring reserves. Then Assembly Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, State Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, and other state lawmakers from Erie County forced the county to share $12.5 million more in next year's sales tax income with cities, towns and villages -- as other counties in New York have done.
The state lawmakers promised to help funnel $12.5 million in state money back to Erie County to cover its loss. But with the new state budget about to be completed for its April 1 start, county officials see only about $500,000 they had not expected. "At the moment, we have no agreement on anything that would fill this $12.5 million hole," Hartman said.
So there will be more pressure on officials to get prisoners out of expensive county lock-ups, to reduce the number of county-owned vehicles, make more money at parks and county-run golf courses, and pull concessions from the county's unions -- an objective seen as unlikely to bear fruit.
With the consultant's recovery plan as their guide, department heads can come up with $16.6 million for next year, either by saving money or charging new or higher fees. Officials also are reviewing ideas that might save $7.5 million more. But Hartman and Budget Director Kenneth Vetter see little chance that the unions will agree to changes that would save $14.1 million.
The contract with the county's largest union, Civil Service Employees Association Local 815, expires at the end of this year, and state law lets the terms of public employee contracts continue until a new agreement is reached. So workers could still receive pay raises that come with years of service, and they could still pay nothing toward their health insurance premiums as they wait for Giambra to leave office at the end of 2007 and take their chances with a new county executive.
The blue-collar union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1095, which agreed to changes that allowed the parks to reopen last year, has been unable to agree on a new contract with Erie County.
The issue of towns paying for Sheriff's Department patrols has been around for years, and Giambra revived it when laying groundwork for the 2005 budget. Then-Sheriff Patrick M. Gallivan responded by saying road patrols were not a luxury, as Giambra's budget director termed them, but "a vital service taxpayers pay for."
About 15 towns rely primarily on the Sheriff's Department for police protection. Clarence is one of the largest.
"I have alerted my Town Board about it," said Supervisor Kathleen E. Hallock. "We will address it once again," she said, but she doubted that Giambra's letter would be met with an acquiescence to pay the fee or to create a Clarence police department.