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County sees a surplus Collins takes credit for a gain and rightly rebuilds reserves

The county executive says it's skill. The county comptroller says it's luck. We just say it's good news.

The Erie County government's 2008 budget, officials report, is on course to come in with a surplus of somewhere between $5 million and $7 million -- or maybe even $10 million, if all of County Executive Chris Collins' dreams come true. This, only a few weeks after County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz predicted a year-end deficit of some $5 million.

Beyond a shared contempt for the county's control board, Republican Collins and Democrat Poloncarz don't agree on much. Even now, as they share the belief that Collins will end his first year in office with a budget surplus, their opinions on how that came to be are quite different.

That's a matter that will have to be sorted out soon by the two of them and by members of the Erie County Legislature. The important thing is that they all figure out how to do it again next year.

Credit for the surplus goes to Collins' tough fiscal management, his administration insists. Staff members say that money was saved by freezing nearly $4 million in authorized spending, that almost $7 million was saved by holding staff vacancies open for longer periods of time and that an extra $10 million was raked in through refunds and recoveries of money that had been, by error or by fraud, wrongly paid out in social services reimbursements.

The last of those was among the efficiencies that Collins had promised, and that the control board had cited as an overly optimistic projection. Proving that such forecasts are credible, that they do not deserve to be dismissed as pipe dreams by a control board looking for ways to justify its own existence, is a key to Collins' goal of balancing the budget and earning freedom from the control board's power.

Poloncarz isn't ready to declare such a victory just yet. He sees the surplus flowing from two factors that cannot be credited to any current county official. One is a spike in revenues from the local sales tax levy. The other is another year of payroll costs coming in well below what was budgeted for the county's large social services bureaucracy.

Good sales tax times come and go with no promise that they, like the retail sales they are based on, won't tank in the next quarter. Thus such a jackpot does not form a serious base on which to build future balanced budgets.

And, says Poloncarz, having a lot of leftover money in the salary account seems to be a common occurrence for Erie County, suggesting that that line item is routinely inflated to provide a safety margin for the larger budget.

All of this remains a rough draft. The comptroller's own year-end figures aren't due for a few more weeks. The final version won't be known until the outside auditors have had their way with everything in the weeks beyond that.

That dispassionate analysis is needed if we are to find out whether the county is well-managed, or just lucky. In the meantime, Collins has announced his intention of adding the surplus to county financial reserve funds that still need rebuilding. That's the right thing to do, because of the long-term savings to taxpayers that better bond ratings can deliver.

If the county is to ease its burden on taxpayers, and earn its freedom from control board oversight, that sort of prudent decision-making will remain necessary -- and make it easier to prove that this surplus was indeed due to good management, and not simply to good fortune.

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