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Legislators question Poloncarz’s spending plan for $18 million surplus

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz recently announced that the county budget ended with an $18 million surplus. Now, he wants to spend $16 million of that money on a laundry list of county needs like repairing roads and bridges, reducing lead poisoning in children and addressing the opioid and heroin crisis.

This money would help jump-start Poloncarz’s most ambitious leadership agenda in years, which was outlined in his State of the County address, and still leave $2 million to bolster county savings, he said.

“You can’t just sit back and do nothing,” he said. “We have the financial ability to pay for these proposals.”

But some members of the County Legislature and the Comptroller’s Office are criticizing Poloncarz for trying to shell out big bucks on a long list of county programs – including major priorities like the heroin drug epidemic – with onetime savings. They also cast doubt on whether the county’s savings will actually grow by $2 million, as the county executive has stated.

Legislature Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, R-West Seneca, pointed out that when Poloncarz served as comptroller, he repeatedly criticized the practice of using county savings to cover recurring expenses. Lorigo also accused the county executive of sidestepping the Legislature’s thorough budget review process by dropping costly initiatives on them long after the 2016 budget has already been approved.

“When we went through the budget process for 2016, none of these issues were mentioned,” said Lorigo, who also serves as chairman of the Finance and Management Committee. “Now, he’s putting on a full-court press to pass these as quickly as possible.”

Indeed, Poloncarz has been using mainstream and social media, as well as community groups, to urge the Legislature to pass various spending proposals – some of which are now encompassed as part of a new 12-page budget amendment package that includes the hiring of a dozen or so county workers.

The latest spending plan includes:

• $5 million for road and bridge improvements and heavy equipment purchases;

• $1.1 million in Law Department costs to cover legal expenses associated with revenue-generating foreclosure actions and the hiring of an assistant county attorney;

• $5 million to cover greater-than-anticipated health care costs associated with Erie County Medical Center;

• $1.1 million for Poloncarz’s heavily publicized lead poisoning prevention services and opioid crisis response plan;

• $231,363 for library books, materials and equipment.

Though technically not a part of the surplus plan, Poloncarz also wants to earmark $1.5 million in pre-existing county savings for security upgrades to the Rath Building, which would include construction and metal detector costs, and the hiring of 15 additional security personnel.

Poloncarz justified his surplus spending plan by pointing out that the county’s undesignated savings already exceed 5 percent, the county’s legal minimum, and already fall within the healthy range recommended by outside credit ratings agencies.

Fitch Ratings upgraded the county’s rating from A to A+ last year, which is considered high but not outstanding.

He also said his past criticisms as comptroller were about being overly reliant on reserves to cover same-year operational costs and did not refer to the use of surplus money from the prior budget year.

He pledged that he would fund his lead poisoning and opioid response plans with recurring revenues in future years, but argued that there’s nothing wrong with using the budget surplus to get these programs started.

The Comptroller’s Office disagreed with Poloncarz’s assessments on many fronts.

Chief of Staff Bryan Fiume pointed out that county spending and the county property tax levy have continued to rise under Poloncarz.

In contrast, the amount of money Poloncarz has earmarked annually to replenish county savings has been small compared with the double-digit contributions made by some of Poloncarz’s predecessors.

“This is not good management,” he said. “This is bad management.”

He also noted that while sales tax revenue has grown, it fell $8.5 million short of projections last year, which should be a cause for concern.

Finally, though the county has not yet closed its books for 2015, Fiume said that based on the county’s current account status, he greatly doubted Poloncarz would return $2 million “or anywhere near” that to the county’s undesignated savings accounts.