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Five takeaways from the new Erie County budget

Here's what you should know about the newly adopted 2017 Erie County budget:

1. Not much to fight over. The Erie County Legislature adopted the county's $1.7 billion budget on Tuesday with little fanfare or controversy. It helped that the budget didn't make any significant cuts to programs, sprinkled in enough last-minute money around to keep legislators' community and cultural groups happy, and didn't raise the tax rate. Both County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Legislature Chairman John Mills said they were glad to avoid contentious battles this year.

2. The tax rate will fall, but tax collections will rise. Despite the slight reduction in the tax rate, don't expect to pay less in taxes. The operating budget still grows spending by 1.15 percent, and raises the tax levy -- the total amount of property tax money collected by the county -- by 5.56 percent. That's the highest percentage increase since 2008. County Executive Mark Poloncarz attributed most of the increase to new construction countywide, not to an overall increase in property assessments. But if last year is any guide, when assessments or equalization rates rose in most communities, many property owners can expect to pay more.

3. New, interesting stuff. Among the initiatives in the budget are anti-poverty efforts, getting a probation officer to track down missing and runaway children, and increased effort to pursue tax enforcement against delinquent property owners. The budget also sets aside money for a public relations campaign to bring ride-sharing services to upstate New York.

4. Evading the state tax cap requires creativity. To keep the budget under the state-imposed property tax cap, as spending is going up and sales tax revenue is going down, the county has been slowly and deliberately recategorizing many sewer taxes as "fees" that are exempt from the tax cap limit. That resulted in a minor controversy between the Erie County Comptroller's Office and the county executive, in which Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw accused Poloncarz of "cooking the books" and Poloncarz accused Mychajliw of not knowing what he's talking about.

5. Health and human services cost big bucks. This is not new, but worth remembering. Nearly half of the county's operating budget covers health and human services programs and personnel. And that chunk of the budget continues to grow, though the increases are offset by state caps on local Medicaid spending. The amount of money budgeted for this category next year is $765.4 million, a $22 million -- 3 percent -- increase over this year's budget.

 

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