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Majority seen in position to maintain control of Erie County Legislature in 2015

In its first year at the helm of the Erie County Legislature, the Republican-aligned majority has pretty much delivered on its promises of a year ago.

A streamlined meetings schedule? Check.

More money for county road repairs? Check.

And perhaps biggest of all, a small cut in the tax rate? Check.

Backers feel that first-year record of accomplishment puts the fledgling majority – four Republicans, a Conservative and an Independence Party member – in good stead to maintain control of the Legislature as county lawmakers head into a new election cycle in 2015.

“You’re going to have six incumbents running with Republican support on their strong level of accomplishment as a majority in their first year,” said Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy. “To deliver the first tax cut in years – albeit, a small one – is a step in the right direction, and it was done under their leadership, not as a directive of the current administration.”

The majority’s success also could help frame next year’s race for county executive. County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw and county Clerk Christopher L. Jacobs, both Republicans, often are mentioned as candidates, and both showed up when a Legislature committee last week assessed the Poloncarz administration’s response to last month’s snowstorms – a meeting some Democrats viewed as politically-motivated.

However, Langworthy was a bit more cautious as to whether the Legislature’s accomplishments would accrue any benefits to whoever might become the GOP standard-bearer against Democratic incumbent Mark C. Poloncarz next November.

“It certainly can’t hurt. I mean, I think that there will be a discussion about the direction of county government and where we need to go as taxpayers here in Erie County, and I look forward to that,” Langworthy said.

Legislature Chairman John Mills, on the other hand, sees the possibility that the Legislature’s actions could reflect just as positively on Poloncarz.

“I think it’s a home run for the county executive, too,” said Mills, noting that Poloncarz was gracious in accepting the Legislature’s amendments to his $1.43 billion spending plan.

“It shows he’s working with the Legislature, and that’s a pretty good political move, in my humble opinion,” said the Orchard Park Republican.

For his part, Poloncarz – a prolific Twitter user – commended Mills in a tweet soon after lawmakers adopted the budget earlier this month. He cited the chairman’s successful shepherding of an amendment process that never seriously threatened essential services or those programs with broad public support.

“I think there were some members of the Legislature majority that wanted some drastic, large-scale cuts to county government, but John also understood that to do that would have required major cuts to services that the public wants,” Poloncarz said. Otherwise, the county executive added, he had no objection to the 4 cents cut in the tax rate.

However, given his failed attempt at pursuing a 3.4 percent tax increase two years ago, some members of the Legislature majority are skeptical of Poloncarz’s claim.

Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said his caucus pursued cuts in the county executive’s budget with surgical precision, and solicited Democratic legislators for their amendments to the budget.

“We weren’t slashing just to slash, you know, going for the tax decrease just to have a tax decrease. I mean, (afterward) the county executive himself tried to take credit for our budget,” Lorigo said.

Still, the Legislature majority went to great lengths to keep their amendments from Democratic legislators and the county executive up until the day of the budget vote.

“We didn’t want him tweeting about what we were doing over here in the Legislature while (the budget amendment process) was going on," Lorigo said.

In the end, the Legislature unanimously voted to trim about $2.1 million— mostly in fringe benefits attached to unfilled positions in the Poloncarz plan – while adding more than $300,000 to the budget, much of it for cultural groups, to win across-the-board support from lawmakers,

The result was a reduction in the overall county tax rate to $4.99 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, down from $5.03 per $1,000 in Poloncarz’s plan, which had been the rate since 2009. On average, the reduction will save the owner of a $115,000 home about $4.80 on his or her next county tax bill, reducing it to about $575.

However, few homeowners actually pay that average rate, which is calculated by dividing the $245.8 million the county will raise in property taxes next year by the $49 billion value of county property, and adjusting it to a per $1,000 basis. The rates individual homeowners pay will vary dramatically, with some even increasing, because of differences in growth rates and assessment practices from one municipality to the next. The $245.8 million levy also is up some $4 million, due to growth and other factors.

Still, the budget lets the Legislature take credit for a tax cut. And even before achieving that, the new majority – the first time since 1982 that Republicans have controlled the chamber without the help of disaffected Democrats – had made its mark.

For instance, with the help of enough Democrats to override a possible veto, the majority last spring pushed through a $5 million increase in road repair funding, long a GOP priority. The money was taken from the county’s $89 million surplus.

The majority bloc also has made the Legislature more business-like, consolidating biweekly committee meetings into one day instead of two, making sure meetings start on time and making them shorter, as well.

Even some Democrats agree that day-to-day management of the Legislature has improved.

“It’s less dog-and-pony, and they’re a little stricter with the rules,” said Legislator Thomas A. Loughran, an Amherst Democrat.

“We have shorter meetings. That’s for sure,” said Minority Leader Betty Jean Grant of Buffalo.

As chairman, Mills is convinced that building consensus in the sometimes fractious body is an achievable goal, as evidenced by the unanimous passage of the amended budget.

“We just did some things that didn’t hurt anybody, including the county executive,” Mills said, explaining how his caucus got the votes of the Legislature’s five Democrats.

“I think we sent the right message that we’re all going to work together to try to reduce spending in county government so we can move forward, and over the next five or 10 years, it’ll be even more,” he added.

Mills already enjoys a positive reputation among his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Grant describes him as fair-minded and even-tempered.

“I called for a couple of meetings when I felt there was something that needed to be addressed or resolved and Chairman Mills was very accommodating to me, coming to meet me or having me come over to meet with them,” the minority leader said.

She also noted that Mills reached out to Democrats to see what budget amendments they might want, and once the majority agreed to restore some cultural funding “there was no reason for us to vote against this budget.”

She couldn’t recall another budget passing unanimously, even when past Democratic majorities reached out to Republicans, she said.

The chairman’s skills as a peacemaker and consensus-builder were recently put to the test in his own caucus when friction erupted between Lorigo and veteran Legislator Kevin R. Hardwick of the City of Tonawanda. The majority leader suspended a Hardwick aide over an allegation that she leaked an internal memo to which only majority staffers were supposed to be privy. During the feud, Hardwick opted not to caucus with the majority as it dealt with the budget.

Mills said disagreements are par for the course, regardless of the coalition.

“You’re dealing with multiple personalities, and Democrats had to deal with the same thing, too. They were always fighting with each other,” he said. “We have disagreements but, generally, we try to work them out,” Mills said.

Lorigo insists that fences have been mended.

Hardwick, however, suggested the fence-mending is still ongoing.