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Revisions <br> considered <br> in hiring <br> freeze <br> County board may let <br> others bypass Giambra

When it froze county government hiring eight weeks ago, the state-appointed control board said only County Executive Joel A. Giambra could appeal the action, on a case-by-case basis.

Some other elected leaders felt left out.

While Giambra ultimately is responsible for a balanced budget, should he be the only elected official urging the control board to act on staff shortages in, say, the county clerk's or sheriff's offices?

At its meeting at 10 a.m. Thursday in the Central Library, the control board will consider revising its order, making Giambra a nonfactor in vacancies he does not directly control.

Members will consider letting the four department heads elected countywide -- the clerk, district attorney, comptroller and sheriff -- seek control board permission to fill their vacancies. The change also is expected to include the Board of Elections, Erie Community College and the library system.

"The county executive had to certify the need for any post to be filled," said Kenneth Vetter, executive director of the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority, as the control board officially is known. "That doesn't seem to be feasible for other departments."

Giambra often has been at odds with the board, when it was led by former State Comptroller Edward V. Regan and now with Amherst businessman Anthony Baynes at the helm. The panel criticizes Giambra more than any other county official, and the one-year "control period" it imposed in November means it will exert more authority over the county executive during his remaining year in office.

Giambra, however, said he would accept the change in the hiring freeze. He said he sees no problem with letting other elected leaders or outside entities, such as ECC, bypass him to seek control board consent to fill jobs that are authorized in the county's budget.

Other matters crucial to the control board's regulation of county government are playing out this week.

The board had said the budget Giambra proposed for next year was tenuous because the County Legislature had not shown a willingness to renew the sales tax rate of 8.75 percent late next year or to impose certain fees that supported spending.

Shortly before Election Day, the board cited several flaws in next year's budget as justification for converting itself into a so-called hard control board that can limit spending, approve or reject contracts and freeze hiring or wages, though this board has said it does not plan a wage freeze.

Giambra and the county's two largest public employee unions responded with a legal challenge that argued the control board's vote was premature.

The Legislature has shown it will keep the sales tax at 8.75 percent through next year, and it has approved a budget that appears to balance.

James M. Hartman, Giambra's budget director, will highlight those developments and respond to other issues raised by the control board when he completes the latest four-year financial forecast this week.

Like annual budgets, four-year forecasts are central to the control board's power. As long as budgets and four-year plans balance with realistic assumptions, the board loses a major reason to become a hard control board.

By projecting that county budgets will balance through the decade, the new four-year plan is expected to provide both a financial forecast and an argument for returning the control board to advisory status.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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