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Editorial: Another unspectacular county budget

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has put forth what at first glance appears to be a reasonable budget proposal. The $1.48 billion spending blueprint for 2018 has some risk items, but overall maintains the county’s recent history of responsible budgeting.
One sign of the unspectacular nature of this budget: one of the most noteworthy items is the hiring of 16 people, most of them cleaners, to work on the bedbug problem at the Rath Building. Other positions are being abolished.

Overall spending would increase by 2.1 percent while the property tax rate declines slightly. Property tax revenue is up because of new construction and reassessments. Sales tax income is also growing, thanks in part to the general increase in retail prices subject to the sales tax.

The turnaround in sales tax is notable and welcome. For several years, sales tax revenue has been less than anticipated, creating budget problems. So far this year it is coming in over budget, providing some budget cushion.

There is positive news on the expense side of the budget also. Social Services costs are down significantly, with county officials expecting $25 million or $30 million in reductions.

The county budget also benefits from a controversial and overly complex financing deal for a new emergency room and other improvements at Erie County Medical Center. The county is taking half of the savings in interest, amounting to about $4 million a year. The wild card will be the uncertainty over what the hospital will have to pay to cover uninsured patients.

There are other budget pressures. About $6 million of the fund balance is being spent. Spending on pay and benefits is headed up. Salaries in 2017 for full-time workers cost $183 million. By 2021, that will hit $200 million.

Erie Community College is facing fiscal instability as enrollment, and therefore revenue, continues to shrink. Poloncarz included an extra $250,000 for the college, but that will hardly solve ECC’s problems.

The budget appropriately sets aside several million dollars for roads and bridges. There is good news for cultural institutions – up 1.2 percent – and libraries – another half-million dollars.

Tourism, however, is being shortchanged. While $500,000 is allocated for upgrades to the aging Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, more needs to be done to attract out-of-towners to the county’s many attractions. That is the job of Visit Buffalo Niagara, which is getting just a 2 percent increase for its marketing efforts. Spending more there will pay off in higher sales tax and bed tax revenue.

Spending on anti-poverty efforts will continue, as will the redevelopment of the old Bethlehem Steel site in Lackawanna. Investments in both could have a big payoff down the road.

Poloncarz calls his proposal “a steady-as-you-go budget,” the same phrase he used last year. And that’s a good thing.
Overall, this is a stable budget proposal, projecting a small year-end budget surplus of about $2 million. However, the County Legislature will be doing its job of combing through the details for further savings and, where needed, more spending.

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