Erie County government ended 2018 with millions in surplus money – much more than usual. But county legislators are not seeing eye to eye with how County Executive Mark Poloncarz wants to spend it.
One of their targets: His proposed $5 million contribution toward the expansion of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
How is the gallery a bigger priority than a new police helicopter, body cameras for sheriff's deputies, additional programs to reduce poverty or repairing roads, they ask.
Besides, the gallery over the past several years has received a commitment of $52.5 million from Amherst-born philanthropist and billionaire bond trader Jeffrey Gundlach.
"They have a huge list of very wealthy donors, not the least of which is Mr. Gundlach," said Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca. "That $5 million that could be coming from Erie County taxpayers? He could probably find that in his Bentley car cushions."
Also, the art gallery already receives hundreds of thousands in operating money from the county, Lorigo said.
Lorigo agrees the Albright-Knox is a remarkable cultural gem, but he asked colleagues at a recent Legislature meeting if the art gallery is a bigger priority than other needs advocated by both Democratic and Republican legislators.
Legislator Thomas Loughran, D-Amherst, said lawmakers should instead focus on their priorities, as he quoted Martin Luther King Jr. in calling the budget "a moral document."
"We need to get our priorities straight," Loughran said, "and I think we have the opportunity to do that."
Calls for spending the surplus in other areas may find a sympathetic ear in new Chairwoman April Baskin, D-Buffalo. She has been an advocate for initiatives to curb city poverty and for the use of body cameras by the sheriff's road patrol officers.
"The buzzword here is priorities," Baskin said. "That's the key."
Poloncarz said that the county's $5 million commitment to the Albright-Knox expansion was made in 2016 with support from legislators. At that time, the intent had been to borrow the $5 million as leverage to gain a $6 million commitment from Gundlach.
Given the surplus, he said he preferred handing over the cash now rather than borrowing the money.
"Why borrow it and incur interest on it?" he said. "It’s a one-time expense."
The county government has $45.4 million in unspent, year-end money from 2018. That is partly due to billing cycle quirks related to Erie County Medical Center funding, higher-than-anticipated sales tax revenue and unexpected savings in other areas, said Budget Director Robert Keating. It's also the result of payments ECMC made to Erie County in exchange for the county's assistance in borrowing money for the its new Emergency Department, he said.
Of the $45 million, $31 million must be set aside for anticipated and rollover payments to the hospital, said Keating.
Some additional remaining money must be set aside for required payments related to contracts, prior funding commitments to community groups, and spending requests from the independently elected sheriff and county clerk.
That leaves millions more in year-end funds. Some of Poloncarz's bigger spending recommendations:
- $5 million for the Albright-Knox expansion.
- $2.5 million for the Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens, committed in February.
- $500,000 for land remediation associated with the demolition of the Lincoln School in Lackawanna.
- $350,000 for a High Fidelity Wrap human services program to help reduce foster care placements.
- $335,000 for the PIVOT program, which helps companies train and employ welfare recipients.
As for money for body cameras, Poloncarz said no one from the Sheriff's Office has approached him to ask for money for either the cameras or the helicopter. Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard, however, has told the Legislature he considers funding of a new helicopter and a full-time SWAT team to be his most immediate public safety priorities.
Howard has said he supports body cameras as an evidence-gathering tool, but the cameras do not supercede his first two priorities. He has also said he would be willing to work with county leaders to find and phase in the funding needed for these three big-ticket items.
Poloncarz said the county has spent $600,000 in police helicopter repairs since 2014, including a major engine overhaul just last year. In addition, the Sheriff's Office has been trying without success to hire a full-time pilot for the helicopter since the retirement of its last pilot in 2014.
Conversations regarding a full-time SWAT team have begun, Poloncarz said.
Republican-supported legislators pointed out that Poloncarz said the county had no money in the 2019 budget to provide Erie County taxpayers any tax relief. But now the county executive suddenly has millions to hand out. The minority caucus lost a fight last fall to cut the proposed 2019 budget by $10 million.
Poloncarz called his 2019 budget plan responsible, citing the decline in sales tax revenue so far this year. Aside from the $45.4 million from 2018 that Poloncarz recommends spending, the county intends to put $2.7 million into reserves.