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County expects extra surplus

Erie County government will likely end 2010 with a better-than-expected surplus -- between $15 million and $20 million, the county's budget director said Tuesday.

Still, the county executive's team does not expect to distribute the extra $1.7 million that the Legislature devoted last year for cultural agencies and public benefit corporations.

It's not likely to happen because County Executive Chris Collins strictly interprets the Legislature's appropriation.

Lawmakers backed the extra $1.7 million by telling the county executive he would save more than he estimated by keeping dozens or hundreds of county jobs vacant during some part of the year. Lawmakers then funneled the would-be "turnover savings" into the arts.

Collins countered by saying he would appropriate the $1.7 million only if the turnover savings reached the Legislature's target. His budget officials say it's falling short by almost $4 million.

Collins still could spend some of his emerging surplus on the cultural agencies. County executives can, and do, work with the Legislature to pass money between accounts when they reconcile the books at year's end. But no one in County Hall expects he will give the arts groups anything extra, even with a surplus approaching $20 million.

The Collins team still forecasts budget deficits for 2012 and 2013. Collins does not intend to propose a tax increase -- it would be for 2012 -- in the midst of this year's campaign for re-election.

The directors of museums, theaters and galleries had picked up Collins' abundant warnings throughout the past year and were not banking on the extra money. Still, his continued refusal to distribute the sum strikes a sour note with smaller arts venues.

"I think it's a lost opportunity for Erie County and everyone who lives here," said Randall Kramer of the Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance. "In 2010, small and midsized culturals were funded, and yet there was a larger surplus even than anticipated. It makes one once again question the actions of the county executive in the 2011 budget."

Collins had been making it tougher for organizations to apply for county grants, but he devoted about $5 million for them in 2010.

For 2011, he froze out dozens of smaller groups, reasoning they only churn money within the local economy and don't draw outsiders.

He continued grants to just the 10 attractions he deems "regionally significant." The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Museum of Science, the zoo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Burchfield Penney Art Center, for example. The 10 will share $4.4 million this year.

The Oishei Foundation has since stepped in to raise $400,000 to $600,000 for the arts organizations that would have collected nothing under the Collins budget.

In October, Budget Director Gregory G. Gach predicted a $14 million surplus. But then sales tax income -- Erie County's largest source of tax revenue -- further rebounded to jack up his year-end projection.

December figures are not yet in. But unless it nose-dived, Gach said that the county surplus will land between $15 million and $20 million when figuring the sales tax recovery and that the county will receive $11 million more than budgeted from a federal stimulus program that helps counties pay their Medicaid expenses.

Gach said his estimates account for the fact Collins delivered $3 million of his surplus to the library system to blunt the $4 million cut he first proposed. The government spent more than budgeted on salaries but saved money elsewhere.

Erie County collects the highest sales tax in upstate New York, 8.75 percent. But that's a bargain rate when compared with Ontario's 13 percent tax. When the Canadian dollar is at par with U.S. currency, as it is now, Canadians fill the stores on this side of the border.

Collins usually wants the Legislature to keep its hands off his budgets, so he was not inclined to abide by its extra $1.7 million appropriation for the arts under the best circumstances. Still, he made exceptions during the year for recipients connected to county lawmakers in his camp.

He allowed the extra $300,000 that the Legislature appropriated for the historic Colored Musicians Club in Buffalo, a site dear to Legislature Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo. He also let the Erie County Soil and Water Conservation District receive an extra $30,000 after the Legislature's Republican leader, John J. Mills of Orchard Park, appealed to him.

Collins is now in his third budget-related lawsuit since taking office. Democrats in the Legislature took him to court when he refused to accept their spending cuts for 2011. Even when a judge ruled against him, he sent out tax bills calculated as though the Legislature never cut $7.9 million. Another court hearing on the matter is set for Feb. 4 before State Supreme Court Justice Joseph R. Glownia.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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