What does it cost to pave a mile of county highway, prosecute a criminal case, or file a deed with the county clerk? And how do those costs compare with what other counties pay?
Those are just some of the questions Erie County should be able to answer but can't, according to supporters of revising the County Charter.
And that's why they asked the county's control board Thursday to approve funding to help establish performance standards for every department and arm of county government.
"We really don't know how to measure success in Erie County," said Gerald E. Kelly, one of two volunteer members of the Charter Revision Commission who requested the money.
Many of the goals Kelly outlined -- a more transparent and understandable budget with clear and detailed fiscal and performance standards -- are required as part of the County Charter changes approved by voters last month.
He and Peter A. Reese, another commission member, met with the control board's Finance Committee on Thursday and asked for funding to hire a consultant to help meet the goals. The board oversees an $18 million pool of money that can be used to fund cost-saving initiatives.
"We can say, 'Just do it,' and do a half-baked job," Reese said of the need for an independent expert.
He indicated the cost of an outside consultant could exceed $500,000, a price control board members seemed hesitant to endorse.
Board members also wonder whether the value of performance-based budgeting would be diminished by what they see as an overtly political county budget process.
"You can't legislate against people doing stupid things," said Kenneth C. Kruly, a former county budget director who serves on the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority.
Kruly, a Democrat sharply critical of Republican County Executive Joel A. Giambra, suggested that the hiring of a consultant be delayed until Giambra's successor takes office in 2008.
Reese responded by indicating that a lawsuit would likely result from any delay in enacting the changes to the charter.
The control board did look favorably on two other requests for funding, most notably a proposal to use electronic ankle bracelets and other global positioning system technology to track people who might otherwise go to jail.
The proposal would require funding to buy the technology, but in the end, save money by reducing the number of inmates in the Erie County Holding Center.
"We think we can reduce that population dramatically and avoid building a new jail or a new wing to the jail," said Probation Commissioner George B. Alexander.
The board also seems interested in pursuing a county proposal to streamline costs for office space by, among other things, reducing the amount of private space the county leases.
The county is requesting money for a study that would determine the county's space needs and recommend alternatives to what it is doing now.
Board members indicated that action on the funding requests could come as soon as next week.