It’s not every day that the Albright-Knox Art Gallery or the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra gets mired in Erie County’s wonky budget battles.
But those two heavyweight and other culturals are weighing in big time on, of all things, the borrowing proposal for Erie County Medical Center that tops the agenda of the County Legislature for Thursday.
Members of the Legislature's Republican majority allege that County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz threatened cuts in the culturals funding if his plan for ECMC borrowing goes down in defeat.
“I’m tired of him using the culturals as his weapon against us,” Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said of the Democratic county executive. “Every time the Legislature disagrees with the county executive, he uses the culturals as political pawns.”
Chairman John J. Mills charged Poloncarz is “friendly upfront and nasty on the back end.”
“If they don’t vote for his smoke and mirrors finances for ECMC, then he says he won’t spend the money in the budget for culturals and parks,” the Orchard Park Republican said. “This is just a ploy by the county executive to get his way.”
Republicans insist that Poloncarz cajoled the culturals to advocate for his borrowing plan, possibly at the risk of their own tax-exempt status.
“There’s a problem there,” Lorigo said, “but he’s threatened them and used them as pawns.”
The county executive, meanwhile, says the culturals' letters to legislators reflect the severity of the situation and its potential devastating effects.
“The legislators are representatives of the people, and if they don’t want the public contacting them on a specific matter, then shame on them,” Poloncarz said.
Some of the area’s top cultural attractions are urging Legislature Republicans to support Poloncarz’s borrowing proposal. Their letters even use the exact same language, which some observers say suggests dictation from the Rath County Office Building’s 16th floor.
“We have reviewed details and documents pertaining to the proposed transaction and have concluded that the best interests of Erie County and its constituents will be served by approval of the proposed Transaction,” wrote the board chairmen and executive directors of the art gallery and philharmonic.
Their letters are exact down to the capitalized “T” in “transaction.”
The escalating battle revolves around the Poloncarz plan to borrow $100 million on the hospital’s behalf through the county’s lower interest rate, while ECMC would pay off the loan. ECMC would apply the interest savings as a credit toward the tens of millions of dollars the county owes the hospital in payments for indigent care in coming years.
The borrowing plan would pay for ECMC’s construction and renovation projects, including a new $45 million emergency department. It would also help relieve the impact of payments the county owes to the hospital for the medical treatment of poor and uninsured patients.
Poloncarz calls the borrowing deal a “no-brainer” because ECMC ‑ not the county ‑ would be responsible for paying the debt.
He insisted late Wednesday that the culturals are free to advocate for issues before the Legislature and that they are not involved in politics. He also said the similar language stems from his social media pleas for directing concerns toward the Legislature, and that the organizations drafted the letters together.
The county executive said the Legislature is well aware of an $18 million shortfall - others peg it at $17 million - stemming from ECMC payments for indigent care.
“If this does not go through, there will be a significant shortfall of approximately $18 million this year, and it will probably be a recurring problem,” he said. “The only way to meet that then will be to cut ‑ in roads, in parks, in culturals. The cuts have to come from somewhere.”
Poloncarz said he remains hopeful that enough members of the GOP majority will embrace his argument and the borrowing measure will pass Thursday.
But Republicans say Poloncarz is suggesting cuts in the current budget, a move they say was attempted by then-County Executive Chris Collins in 2009 and thwarted by the Legislature when it went to court. Mills said he recognizes the projected budget gap for this year, prompting the county executive’s course of action.
“He wants to use part of that hospital funding to close his budget gap,” Mills said. “It’s voodoo accounting, as far as I’m concerned. If he has a deficit, he better look at the '18 budget to see where he can cut expenses."
Mills said he expects the ECMC funding plan to be defeated in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
He also accused Poloncarz of increasing spending by about $90 million in recent years, all the while assuring the Legislature the county has enough money to cover the expenses.
“I’m not going to shortchange the culturals and roads if he has a $17 million hole in his budget and he doesn’t know where to find the money,” Mills said. “Maybe the control board has to go hard again to micromanage his expenses.
“I’m very disappointed,” he added. “Don’t play games with the County Legislature.”