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Editorial: Poloncarz serves up a steady budget that benefits from new construction

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has proposed what appears to be another in a line of cautious, responsible budgets, staying within the state tax cap while holding the line on expenses. County legislators – as is their wont and responsibility – will be looking for ways to trim it further, even though Poloncarz says, “There’s no fat.”

The $1.72 billion budget is a mirror of what is happening in Buffalo, with low gasoline prices depressing sales tax revenues even as new construction, including HarborCenter and the Westin Hotel attached to Delaware North’s new headquarters, bolsters the county’s property tax levy. That give-and-take has produced what Poloncarz calls a “steady-as-you-go budget” that delivers nothing exciting. In the nation’s highest-taxed state, that’s not a bad outcome.

The overall tax rate will decline slightly under Poloncarz’s proposal, though because of differing valuations, there will be individual taxpayers who may see increases or declines in their taxes. That’s inevitable.

From his description of the administration’s decision-making, the budget appears to be based on solid, even conservative, projections. On sales taxes, for example, the county has taken note of its too-optimistic projections over the previous two years, and is forecasting growth this year of only 1.25 percent. The reasonable assumption is that gasoline prices have stabilized and will not fall low enough to further depress sales tax collections. For that reason, he said, the budget projects only a slight increase.

Among the winners in the spending plan are the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, which won an increase in funding, as did tourism and cultural organizations. Losers include Erie Community College, which received no increase on the theory that it has significant internal issues to resolve before deserving an increase in its level of funding. Its enrollment is falling faster than anticipated and its president, Jack Quinn Jr., has announced that he will retire at the end of the school year.

In addition, the budget proposal abolishes several vacant positions, though overall staffing would rise by close to 20 positions, in part because Poloncarz and the Legislature agreed to add positions midyear to support Poloncarz’s lead poisoning prevention program and his response to the county’s opioid crisis, among other increases.

The bottom line for the operating budget is an increase of just 1.15 percent – or $16 million. The capital budget proposal seeks $55.6 million for construction projects, including $23.9 million for road and bridge repairs. In all, it’s a $4 million increase over last year and includes an additional $1 million for improvements to the convention center.

What it doesn’t provide is any part of the $5 million needed to repair a closed section of Tonawanda Creek Road, two years after it collapsed, disrupting travel in a rural part of the Town of Clarence. Among those inconvenienced are worshippers at St. Stephen’s United Church of Christ, which sits about 100 paces from the huge breach.

Members of the church are petitioning for action on the road, and its pastor, Ned Holderby, who sponsored a forum at his church with Republican County Legislator Edward Rath, said the county may obtain state and federal funds if Poloncarz identifies it as a project with priority status. And, in fact, the county executive says he will seek those federal funds.

That process should begin now, though. Two years is long enough to make plans and figure out a way to repair what is, to be sure, an enormously expensive rehabilitation.

Still, in all, Poloncarz appears to have presented a reasonable and conservative budget that he says will produce no more than a small surplus at the end of the fiscal year. Legislators will want to put their own mark on the budget by looking for more savings, but if they adopted this, as is, few would be able to complain.

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