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Don't blame officials for service cuts

Buffalonians -- and for purposes of this column I'll include the taxpayers of Amherst, Cheektowaga and Lancaster as well -- are prone to blame their chief executives and/or their legislative bodies for cuts being made in services and also for the increases in their tax levies. In fact, however, they are incorrectly assigning the blame for the reasons these draconian steps are being taken.

In a survey of more than 300 communities by the National League of Cities, four out of five cities reported that they would be less able to meet their needs in 2009 than this year. Those responding to the survey indicated they saw no signs of things getting better.

Why the pessimism and the bleak outlook? It is all part of the economic malaise that has enveloped most of the nation. For example, tax receipts from sales and property taxes have dropped dramatically in most communities and fuel and other costs are continuing to rise. This adds to the national economic crisis as the core sources of municipal revenue continue to erode.

Some, but most certainly not all, of the communities facing economic shortfalls have in the past been accustomed to balancing their budgets without great difficulty. Not so today. Those cities and towns that make the cuts in their expenditures and are still in the red are faced with the need to issue a bond or a note to balance their budgets. The climate, however, for this approach is certainly not good, and communities that have made significant budget cuts are faced with a second or even third round of budget cuts, much to the dismay of their taxpayers.

Buffalo and its major suburbs have to make drastic reductions that seriously affect the quality of life for their residents. All over the county, parks are being sold and fees for routine services that long were provided without special fees for residents are going up, and at the same time workers are being laid off, adding to an increasing unemployment number in the county.

Financial officers in many communities note that it is the first time in their careers that the three major general tax sources -- property, sales and income -- all have declined simultaneously. As a result, they point out that many communities have reluctantly but of necessity begun to cut such services as police or fire protection, and/or cut back trash pickups.

Phoenix, with a population of some 1.5 million and in an area that we in Buffalo look upon as being affluent, has just adopted a budget that included $89 million in cuts. That is a significant negative and I am certain it was not looked upon kindly by its residents.

Locally, Erie County Executive Chris Collins has just said he needs about 8 percent more in property tax revenue to balance his budget for the upcoming year, but he noted that the bill for a home that has not been reassessed will rise only 3.6 percent.

Collins said he is asking cultural groups to accept a 5 percent cut in county support and that he will cut some 200 county jobs. He also said that he would terminate the county's parks agreement with the City of Buffalo because county government has been losing money on that agreement. I can understand his move in this area, but it will only add to the budgetary problems of the city. The big question is whether the city can take the added hit more than the county.

Any way you look at it, the financial woes of the city and county will continue to plague the two governmental entities and the outlook for better times does not appear too bright for the near future. The taxpayers of Buffalo, Amherst, Cheektowaga and Lancaster are likely to face higher property taxes for the near future, and it is not through any fault of their officials. When the bleak financial picture of the nation improves the economy will improve here, but not before.

Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News

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