Erie County Executive Chris Collins did not merely release his first county budget last week, he recast the budget mold in a way that he acknowledges runs counter to the advice of many experts, but that he says is appropriate and accurate.
The budget also represents a challenge to the Erie County control board. Collins has threatened to sue the board if it rejects the four-year operating plan that he presents, and that is required by the state's control board law.
Collins said he would change things in county government, and so he is.
As to the budget numbers themselves, they will require close scrutiny. By shifting methodology, Collins is altering budget numbers in ways that affect percentage calculations for such things as prudent reserves. He does not expect universal agreement by other officials, nor should he.
Overall, his plan -- which he said he reviewed decimal by decimal -- would raise the property tax bill by an average of $18, raise fees by a total of about $600,000, cut aid to cultural groups and eliminates grants to past recipients, including the Cooperative Extension Service and the Hamburg Natural History Society.
At the same time, the budget provides raises for Collins' top aides, including the budget director, social services commissioner, deputy county executive and health commissioner. The fault lines in this argument are predictable: Collins says the officials are underpaid by private sector standards and he needs to pay for the best and brightest, while critics say the county executive is merely rewarding his favorites.
The confluence of efforts is troubling. It's hard to swallow even a small tax increase in this weak economy while, at the same time, offering raises to top officials. And, indeed, Collins isn't asking county legislators to swallow it. He's betting that they can't -- that no majority would coalesce around this budget, meaning it would become law by default.
The budget, itself, totals $1.03 billion, a total that Collins sees as reflecting his commitment to presenting a "management budget" -- one that can be easily used to track spending. Previous budgets, he said, have double-counted debts, double-counted the county share of road repairs and included utilities being used by other municipalities.
Under that older budget formulation, the budget would have totaled $1.5 billion without spending a cent more than the Collins budget proposes. It will be interesting to hear the argument against this new approach, which, if Collins is to be believed, sounds sensible.
To be sure, legislators will have their hands full grappling with this budget. And Collins may be right that no majority will form around it. But they are obliged to try. These are financially difficult times, and Collins may have threaded the political needle in his combination of budget cuts and revenue increases -- but lawmakers need to review this budget carefully before allowing it to become law by default.