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County budget's fate is unclear ; Funding for jobs needs to be found

Erie County budget-makers have some gritty residue to clean up before they have a county budget ready to go for 2011.

For example:

*It's unclear how they will pay the next Erie County attorney, as well as a corps of 16 Sheriff's Office dispatchers at the E-911 center -- two higher-profile items in limbo.

*Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz will return to court to restore many of his office's jobs after County Executive Chris Collins took a chain saw to them.

*Legislature Democrats want a few days to examine Collins' deal with fellow Republicans to restore $3 million of the $4 million cut Collins once intended to inflict on the libraries. The Democrats want to restore the entire $4 million.

Lawmakers, the county executive and the courts will grapple with this fallout in coming days, starting today with the deal that gives the libraries some $21 million in county operating aid for 2011, when they had expected to stay at this year's $22 million.

The Legislature's Community Enrichment Committee meets at 11 a.m. to ask library officials how their system will function with $1 million less than expected from county government.

The committee might also discuss the decision by Collins and Republican lawmakers to go back to the Oishei Foundation to patch together $500,000 for cultural agencies next year -- $100,000 from the county, $400,000 from Oishei -- when Collins had intended to give most applicants nothing.

It's a long shot that Democrats will wrestle anything more from Collins beyond the new $3 million for the libraries and $100,000 for the arts. However, Democratic lawmakers are taking time with the library deal, partly to search for leverage. The Democrats could have approved paperwork appropriating the $3 million last week. Instead, they will probably do so in a session Thursday.

The struggle over the 2011 budget has been ugly, even for Erie County. This time, the county executive is in a pickle because of the way he tried to brush back the Legislature.

Under the county's rules, a county executive can veto a Legislature's additional spending, but not its reductions in spending. In the past, that rule would draw county executives to the table because Legislatures will add spending in certain areas -- which county executives usually don't want -- by cutting spending elsewhere -- which county executives really don't want when the cuts hit crucial accounts.

In one move this year, the Legislature freed $50,000 to spend elsewhere by cutting the salary of the next Erie County attorney from the $150,000 that Collins wanted in order to draw better talent to a little less than $100,000.

To make this change, the Legislature followed custom: It deleted a position for an Erie County attorney making $150,000 -- a deletion that the county executive cannot veto -- then added a position for an Erie County attorney making about $100,000 -- an addition the county executive may veto.

Collins, always loath to bargain with Legislature Democrats, declared their spending reductions "null and void" because, to him, the reductions either made it impossible for him to follow other laws, or the Legislature violated its own internal rules. This, he believed, would allow him to pay the next county attorney $150,000 and ignore the lesser salary, plus many Legislature-imposed cuts.

Then a judge, in a lawsuit filed by Democrats, ruled that the Legislature's budget reductions were valid. The Collins team asserts it can win its appeal, but until a decision is made the 2011 budget holds no post for an Erie County attorney. That's because Collins vetoed the addition of a county attorney earning about $100,000, then instructed Legislature Republicans to uphold his vetoes if they wanted the extra $3 million for the libraries.

County leaders will probably work something out and hire a new county attorney next year to replace Cheryl A. Green, who resigned in September. The County Charter requires the post.

As for the dispatchers, Collins said he found it more efficient for the sheriff's corps of dispatchers to join the E-911 staff within his Department of Central Police Services, and he moved them there in his 2011 budget. Some sheriff's personnel prevailed on the Legislature to move them back because, they said, an important layer of oversight would be lost.

The Legislature, like it did with the county attorney's job, deleted the dispatcher jobs that were moved into the Central Police Services budget and restored them in the Sheriff's Office. Now, the same dynamic is at play: The Legislature's deletion of the dispatchers in one area of the budget has been upheld with State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Glownia's ruling, but Collins vetoed the addition of those jobs in the Sheriff's Office. So right now, the 2011 budget does not contain those 16 posts.

With Poloncarz, Collins cut the comptroller's staff more vigorously than he cut any county department run by an elected official. Collins says he doesn't like the way Poloncarz, whom he tried to knock off in last year's election, runs his office.

Poloncarz went to court once on the matter, arguing that Collins failed to provide him the resources to carry out his Charter-imposed duties. Poloncarz also said it's up to the Legislature, not Collins, to determine the size of the comptroller's staff.

In November, Poloncarz was forced to retreat when a judge said the lawsuit was premature until the Legislature adopts a budget.

Poloncarz will be back in court Wednesday seeking the restoration of 15 jobs -- with no clear way to pay for them if Collins wins his appeal of the Glownia decision.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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