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Erie County Legislature approves budget that cuts tax rate, adds county jobs

The Erie County Legislature on Thursday unanimously approved a 2018 budget that cuts the tax rate slightly.

The county tax rate will fall by 1 cent.  But the actual tax levy – the total amount of property taxes collected by the county – will grow by 5.35 percent, the highest percentage increase in at least a decade.

The $1.48 billion budget put forward by County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz preserves county services and continues investment in anti-poverty efforts and the Bethlehem Steel site redevelopment. It will increase spending for libraries, provide more support to attract movie productions and earmark $69.1 million for construction and road projects, which is more than last year.

Poloncarz attributed the growth in property taxes to increased assessments and new construction. The 2018 tax levy will be $287 million. The tax rate will fall to $4.94 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Poloncarz said the budget also reflects fiscal prudence, with the overall budget growing by 2.1 percent and staying under tax cap limits.

Chairman John Mills, R-Orchard Park, said the final budget was the result of multiple meetings with the county executive since late October to reach a compromise on cuts and spending. The Republican-supported majority attempted the further reduce the tax levy and eliminate jobs, but was ultimately persuaded by Poloncarz that such cuts would be detrimental to county services, he said.

"I'm optimistic it's going to work for everyone," Mills said.

"I think this is probably one of the smoothest budget passages in my past 10 years in the Legislature," said Legislator Betty Jean Grant, D-Buffalo.

She pointed out that the Republican majority did not stir up public controversy over Poloncarz's recommendations this year and suspected that their newfound willingness to work with the county executive had to do with the fact that the Democrats will take over the majority in January.

Last week, the Legislature approved a package of budget amendments that, most notably, provides an additional $250,000 for Erie Community College, in addition to the $250,000 boost already proposed by Poloncarz. That $500,000 increase will become part of the county's permanent minimum contribution to the college in the future.

The amendments add more staff to the District Attorney's Office, Comptroller's Office and County Clerk's Office. Poloncarz's office receives an additional administrative assistant. The Legislature also supported additional or restored funding to a laundry list of legislator-supported community and cultural groups.

Altogether, 35 new full-time positions will be added to the county payroll next year. That includes the hiring of more full-time, professional janitors to keep county offices clean, said Budget Director Robert Keating. That figure is slightly offset by a reduction of 14 seasonal and part-time workers. Some county administrators will also receive raises.

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To help offset the additional costs, the Legislature cut the addition of five full-time motor vehicle operators/snow plow drivers to the Department of Public Works. The Legislature also took $500,000 from the county's legal risk retention fund, the pot of money used to settle lawsuits. That account will have to be replenished with 2017 surplus money next year.

Poloncarz praised the Legislature's budget amendments last week, calling them "minor alterations."

"I would like to thank the Legislature for the smooth, non-confrontational, businesslike deliberations they have conducted on the proposed 2018 county budget and for the reasonable amendments they proposed as well," he said in a statement.

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