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Erie County Legislature fights Poloncarz’s bid to ban plastic shopping bags

More than 100 U.S. communities have enacted bans or restrictions on plastic shopping bags since San Francisco took the lead a decade ago. County Executive Mark Poloncarz wants to add Erie County to that list.

It’ll take a fight.

The Legislature on Thursday rejected Poloncarz’s request to spend $75,000 on a study to consider the impact of banning plastic bags at grocery stores, retailers and take-out restaurants. The study was supposed to be the first step in Poloncarz’s effort to eliminate the disposable bags at check-out counters.

“I don’t think it’s been well thought out,” said Legislature Chairman John Mills, R-Orchard Park.

A majority of county legislators have always considered this issue a dud. Many say they have far more pressing priorities when it comes to spending tax dollars.

Poloncarz, who considers plastic bags a pollution hazard, remains undeterred.

“We’re putting together a proposal regardless,” he said.

The funding request for the study was included as part of a larger budget amendment introduced Thursday. The Legislature rejected Poloncarz’s request to spend surplus money from last year on a plastic bag study. It was dumped along with millions of dollars of other funding requests that would have earmarked old money for new expenses.

Mills said he supports efforts to promote plastic bag recycling, but he expressed concern about the financial hardship a plastic bag ban would have on retailers. He also recounted a conversation he had with an elderly woman who uses the plastic bags to line her trash cans, and he raised concerns about cross-contamination of food products through the reuse of non-disposable grocery bags.

Other legislators said they have more-pressing priorities for taxpayer money.

Interest in the plastic bag ban from the Legislature’s majority coalition – Republicans and Conservative and independent lawmakers – has been low since Poloncarz introduced the idea at his State of the County address.

At the event, he handed out reusable blue bags to every guest who attended. The reusable bags featured the words “Courtesy of Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz” and the county seal.

Legislature Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, was so incensed by the distribution of the reusable bags that he made repeated inquiries to find out how much they cost and who paid for them.

It turned out Poloncarz spent $697 from the county executive’s budget to pay for 400 reusable bags, leading Lorigo and Republican Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw to deride the spending of taxpayer money for a “promotional stunt” by Poloncarz.

Poloncarz said Thursday that he will press forward with the study and find other ways to pay for it.

The results of the study would be sent to the Legislature later this year, he added, with the expectation that a program banning plastic bags might be ready to implement sometime next year.

Lorigo responded that Poloncarz cannot spend more than $10,000 for a plastic bag study without gaining Legislature approval, and the Legislature majority has no intention of approving any such proposal.

Meanwhile, legislators pointed to other spending changes they approved Thursday, which they called more significant.

That includes allocating $1 million for Erie Community College to cover the cost of an early retirement incentive that could help defray the financial pressures the college now faces. Legislators said they expect the early retirement incentive to move 25 to 27 veteran employees off the college payroll.

“I think helping ECC is a much bigger priority,” said Legislator Kevin Hardwick, R-Town of Tonawanda. “We’ve got to save that college. This is one way to do it.”

Poloncarz said he was shocked to see the Legislature provide the incentive, which is not included in ECC’s 2016-17 budget.

“I’m not sure this resolves any of the major issues ECC has,” he said.

The Legislature majority also refused to earmark $5 million of surplus money to offset a payment made earlier this year to Erie County Medical Center that was $8.8 million over what the county budgeted. The additional expense for the hospital’s indigent care represents a major hit to the 2016 budget. Poloncarz had hoped to soften the blow by earmarking some of last year’s surplus toward the hospital expense.

Lorigo said he wanted county administrators to answer more questions about the expense before approving the budget transfer. County officials responded that they already answered all his questions and said it was wrong for him to hold up the matter when the money will eventually have to come out of county savings.

Although the Legislature majority rejected millions in surplus spending requests, they did approve the allocation of additional money for road and bridge upgrades, library materials and summer youth programming. They also agreed to fully fund Poloncarz’s $375,595 opioid crisis response plan.