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Fund county budget reform Control board should help development of system with better cost measurements

The Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority should give serious consideration to funding an effort to establish performance standards for every department and arm of government. The Legislature approved the revised county charter, the county executive did not veto it and the voters passed it by a 70 percent margin. Performance-based measurements were part of that approval.

Actually funding a performance measure system is now the issue, and it's a cause being pushed by a couple of volunteer members of the now-defunct Erie County Charter Revision Commission, Gerald E. Kelly and Peter A. Reese. Kelly and Reese want to see county budgets that are transparent and understandable to the average citizen. Taxpayers, for example, should be able to easily discern the cost of paving a mile of county highway or prosecuting a criminal case. That sounds simple enough, but it hasn't always been the case.

Program budgeting would enable better taxpayer understanding of expenditures. Programs are not well defined in line-item budgeting. The new system would define expenses for each service by staff, equipment, space and overhead charges -- all costed out in a program budget. It would help Erie County compare how it is doing from year to year, and against other urban counties.

The control board should welcome and support that effort. After all, the board seeks improvements in the county's budgeting processes. To spend about $500,000 for expert restructuring advice seems to make sense.

Kenneth C. Kruly, a former budget director, correctly pointed out that you can't legislate against people doing stupid things. But you can attempt to put in place quantitative measurements that help management set and meet goals.

Reese and Kelly, acting as private citizens and not representing the commission, are merely attempting to get implemented a form of performance budgeting that is currently in the charter. How much further the county can go is uncertain, but it's worth trying to improve the budgeting process and format. Anything that can be done to improve the quality of government is a good investment.

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