A budget meeting that ran more than two hours Wednesday left Erie County legislators exactly where they started at the beginning of the day: with no approved changes to a $1.38 billion budget proposed by County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.
But a majority of votes appeared to coalesce behind a plan to eliminate a proposed county tax hike – despite strong objections from top officials in the Poloncarz administration who characterized the budget cuts as "phony."
That set up a budget battle that will stretch into Tuesday, when legislators meet to make their final changes to the 2013 budget and seek to resolve two vastly different proposals from two groups of legislators.
On the one hand, five Democrats would keep the proposed tax increase but would make $906,998 in spending cuts in order to add a number of items to the budget, including meals for senior citizens, funding for more cultural organizations and a study of potential uses for the county nursing home in Alden when it closes next year.
"If I had maybe 100 calls saying, ‘Don't support the property tax increase,' maybe I'd be inclined to do that," said Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant, D-Buffalo, "but not one person called."
On the other hand, six legislators from four political parties put their support behind a plan to trim $8.5 million from Poloncarz's spending plan in order to eliminate a proposed 3.4 percent county property tax increase. Those cuts would come from several areas that include money for legal settlements, jail overtime, fringe benefits and a social services program that provides temporary help for people who don't qualify for federal welfare programs. The budget package had support Wednesday from members of the Legislature's minority caucus and Legislator Thomas A. Loughran, D-Amherst, who opposes a tax hike.
The two sides deadlocked in a Budget Committee meeting, with neither one able to gain enough votes of the eight-member panel to pass amendments. But if those votes hold until Tuesday, it appears that a slim majority of the 11-member Legislature would back a plan to trim $8.5 million from the budget to avert a tax hike.
That possibility drew a sharp rebuke from Poloncarz, who warned legislators in a letter that the cuts would throw his 2013 budget proposal out of balance.
"The Minority Caucus' amendments are irresponsible and reckless, and will create a significant budget shortfall on day one on Jan. 1, 2013," Poloncarz wrote in a letter to legislators.
Earlier this month, his department heads spent hours explaining to legislators how they drew up their estimates and why they believe that projections for fringe benefits and other spending lines are accurate.
Members of the minority caucus, who drew up the package of cuts, were largely silent during Wednesday's budget meeting but later defended their proposal as based on county data, reports from the county comptroller and suggestions that Poloncarz made when he was comptroller.
"We don't believe they're phony budget cuts," said Legislature Minority Leader John J. Mills, R-Orchard Park, "and we have the data to back it up."