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Sales-tax revenue issue being debated in quiet Erie County executive race

Assemblyman Ray Walter calls it his Fair Share Plan.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz calls it “dead on arrival,” for both legal and practical reasons.

Walter’s plan, which would redistribute some county sales tax revenue, has become the biggest – and almost the only – issue in the quiet public battle for Erie County executive.

Walter, the Republican candidate challenging the incumbent Poloncarz, stood in front of the soon-to-be-shuttered Huntley Station power plant late Monday morning to hammer away at what he considers the inequity of the county’s current sales tax-sharing formula.

But even after Primary Day, often considered the real beginning of the general election campaign, most county residents would be hard-pressed to cite another issue in the current campaign. And many probably aren’t even aware of the debate over the sales tax formula.

The county executive’s race hasn’t generated much buzz in the community.

“Our campaign’s making noise,” Walter said, when asked about the race before his brief news conference Monday. “We’ve heard silence so far from Mark Poloncarz.

“It seems that my opponent has decided to rest on his laurels,” Walter added. “I’m not sure he has a vision (for Erie County).”

Walter said his campaign also has focused on driving down property taxes, investing in schools and doing something about the county’s inadequate infrastructure. Highway superintendents and town supervisors have told Walter about the need to improve county roads and bridges.

Poloncarz replied that he has traveled around the county, attending events and just talking to people about his administration’s accomplishments the last four years.

“Going around the community, people seem to be very pleased with the work we’ve done these last four years,” the county executive said later Monday.

As for his vision for Erie County, Poloncarz cited two detailed initiatives he has introduced, one an economic plan, the other for health and human services. And he pointed to the county’s unemployment rate, which has dipped from 8.9 percent almost four years ago to 5.1 percent.

“We’re going to continue to talk about my record,” he said.

Others have pointed out that Poloncarz enjoys several built-in advantages, including incumbency, a deep campaign war chest and the county Democratic enrollment edge.

That didn’t stop Walter from calling his news conference Monday.

The challenger’s plan would revise the 1977 county sales-tax sharing formula, which he claims unfairly favors the cities of Buffalo, Lackawanna and Tonawanda. Walter’s plan would redirect some sales tax revenue from the three cities to the county’s towns and school districts.

The expected shutdown of the Huntley Station in March would cost the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda schools $3 million a year and the Town of Tonawanda $2 million a year in lost property taxes. Walter called that a “devastating impact” on those two budgets.

Specifically, his plan would annually distribute more than $1.5 million in additional sales tax revenue to Ken-Ton schools and $1.9 million to the Town of Tonawanda, Walter said.

Most county residents he’s talked with, at diners and in door-to-door visits, don’t realize that the current county sales tax-sharing formula dates back to 1977. Walter called it an almost 40-year-old agreement that no longer fits the demographic and economic realities of Erie County.

Poloncarz said that he has been working behind the scenes with Town of Tonawanda, Ken-Ton and other local officials to find some relief for the town and the school district. That could come from a $19 million state Urban Development Corp. fund created in June by elected state officials to help communities hurt by the closing of fossil-fuel-generating facilities.

“I’m a little dismayed that the assemblyman would hold a political event in front of Huntley and not mention the state program just passed” for 2015-16, the county executive said. “That leads me to believe he doesn’t even know about it.”

He and other officials also are pursuing other state and federal programs and funds to help blunt the impact of the Huntley closing.

Poloncarz has said previously that the county can’t change the sales tax revenue formula without state approval, because the agreement now comes under the auspices of the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority Act. On Monday, he added that even if state law could be changed, the county’s three city mayors would be seeking more, not less, money in any renegotiation of the formula.

“It sounds good on paper,” the county executive said of Walter’s plan. “But in reality, it has no merit.”