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Plan outlined to close $18.5 million budget gap ; Edwards seeking to reopen contracts, offers buyouts

Business leaders learned Wednesday how Chautauqua County Executive Gregory Edwards plans to deal with an estimated budget gap of $18.5 million for 2011.

Edwards addressed business leaders at his annual breakfast, hosted by the Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce, in the Williams Center at Fredonia State College.

Among the challenges the county's fiscal engineers face next year are anticipated cost increases in Medicaid, retirement benefits, health insurance and salaries of union employees.

Edwards said that he asked to meet with union leaders but that so far there has been no movement to reopen contracts and discuss negotiations.

Currently, the county is offering a retirement incentive to employees of more than 25 years -- a $15,000 payout or two years of medical insurance. Those taking the offer will be required to file retirement papers by next Thursday and leave the job by Aug. 1. Other lesser incentives will be offered through September.

Edwards said he hopes that 80 employees take advantage of the incentives. He estimated the cost savings to be about $2,000 per month per employee taking the buyout.

He said non-union employees will not get a pay raise this year or next year in his budget proposal.

Although closing the 2011 budget gap is expected to result in higher property taxes, he will not push for a higher sales tax rate, currently at 8.75 percent.

Edwards also took questions from the audience of more than 100:

On the issue of wind turbines in Lake Erie -- a decision that rests with state leaders -- he said he hopes to position the county for revenue from such a project. "This will probably be one of the most studied energy projects in the United States," he added.

He said the county is still feeling the repercussions from three disasters over the past year: flooding in the Silver Creek area, swine flu and the February fire that damaged two major buildings in downtown Dunkirk. He said the county is still dealing with repairs from the flooding and county employees displaced by the fire. The departments of Social Services, Health and Probation were among services housed in the old Masonic Temple that burned.

About his bid for lieutenant governor on the ticket with GOP gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio, he said Western New York needs to be represented at the State Capitol, which has saddled the region with too many mandated costs.

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