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Legislature majority seeking cuts to 2015 county budget

The Erie County Legislature’s Republican-aligned majority plans to take a slice out of County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz’s 2015 spending proposal when lawmakers hold their annual budget meeting Tuesday.

However, it is unlikely they will resort to using a hatchet to get the job done. More likely, a small penknife will be enough to serve up a tax cut for county property owners.

Cutting county taxes has been a priority for the GOP-aligned caucus since taking over the reins of the Legislature, Majority Leader John J. Mills said.

“It won’t be an awful lot,” the Orchard Park Republican said of a planned tax cut, “but it sends the right message that we’re serious about scaling down government, in general, (reducing) the expense of government and passing some of that savings along to taxpayers.”

The Democratic county executive’s $1.43 billion budget would keep the county tax rate the same as it has been since 2009, at $5.03 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. Still, Mills said, cutting it would also send the right signal to businesses wanting to set up shop in Erie County.

However, where in Poloncarz’s budget the Legislature might cut has yet to be revealed.

“We’re going through the whole budget. We haven’t really formulated any specific area yet. We’re just doing our due diligence,” Mills said, adding that legislators should have a better idea by today. “It’s a reasonably tight budget, but we know that there’s some money in there that can be used to reduce spending.”

New positions in Poloncarz’s budget may be one place the majority looks. It also might reduce the county’s $89 million surplus.

“We have a solid fund balance. According to the county executive, we should be able to roll some $8 million to $9 million over from this year. We’re assuming we’re going to get whacked from that storm, obviously, for about $4 million or $5 million, probably. So it will cut into that, but that’s going to reimbursable by FEMA,” he added.

Peter A. Anderson, press secretary for Poloncarz, said damage estimates from the November storm are still coming in and are expected to climb. He said the administration is hopeful that the majority will take that into consideration as they prepare their amendments to the county executive’s budget proposal.

“As we are as much in the dark about these amendments as anyone, it’s impossible to say what is to be anticipated. If any of these proposed cuts coming from the majority are responsible, there should not be a need to touch the surplus,” Anderson said.

Mills said he has reached across the aisle to Legislature Democrats for their input. However, Minority Leader Betty Jean Grant of Buffalo said that neither she nor any of her Democratic colleagues is privy to what the majority plans.

“I guess they don’t want to forewarn the county executive so he could have a whole weekend to spend examining what they plan to do and how it could be detrimental to county government,” Grant said last week.

If Democrats were in the majority and had a county executive in the opposite party, “we’d probably do the same thing, too,” said Grant.

However, Mills said he is seeking to be more transparent than prior Democratic majorities were.

“I’m working with the other side of the aisle. They’re submitting amendments to us that they would like to see in the budget,” Mills said. “Most ... are (additions), not too many cuts, but it’s our budget. When they were in control for the eight years I was in the Legislature, we had no input at all.”

Anderson said the Legislature majority is not being transparent. He said it has always been customary for the Legislature to submit its amendments 48 hours in advance of a budget vote.

“If these amendments are presented Tuesday and then immediately voted on, when does the public get to weigh in on them?” Anderson said.

The Legislature’s public hearings on the budget plan were held Nov. 25. The majority did not submit a package of amendments the following day, during the Legislature’s Finance & Management/Budget Committee meeting, which was adjourned after only four minutes.

While the six Republican-aligned lawmakers constitute a majority in the 11-member Legislature, the majority caucus still would need eight votes to override any vetoes by Poloncarz.

Placating two or more Democrats in the Legislature with a restoration of funding cuts to cultural groups may be a way to win two or three over to mount a veto-proof majority, if they can also be persuaded to accept whatever the cuts the majority might pursue Tuesday.

Mills said he is not averse to some possible restorations in culturals funding

“There may be some restorations,” said Mills. “It depends on the pluses and the minuses, what we come up with. I think there’s room for some restorations.

“I think that some things that were in the county executive’s budget were unfair,” Mills added.