This shouldn’t be that difficult. The answer to what to do with Erie County’s budget surplus is to:
1. Meet the county’s obligations.
2. Catch up on essential work that needs doing.
3. Save the rest – or most of it – to defray residents’ 2020 tax bills.
And yet, the county’s elected officials are predictably squabbling over what to do with money that is the county’s only insofar as its residents ponied up more than necessary in the first place.
Erie County has $45.4 million in unspent, year-end money from 2018 from a variety of reasons, including billing cycle quirks and higher-than-expected sales tax revenues. And it should be said: As problems go, that’s not a bad one to have.
A large chunk of that money is already committed: $31 million for anticipated and rollover payments to Erie County Medical Center and more for contracts, existing commitments, community groups and spending requests from the sheriff and county clerk. Nevertheless, that still leaves millions more on hand.
The first $5 million should be easy, despite the carping by Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca. The county had pledged that money three years ago to the transformative expansion project at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. It should fulfill that pledge.
At the time, the plan was to borrow the $5 million. Instead – and sensibly – Poloncarz wants to meet that obligation with part of its 2018 windfall. As he notes, why should the county incur interest costs if it can pay the money with cash on hand? To do otherwise isn’t very conservative, Lorigo’s party affiliation notwithstanding.
As to the rest: Are there potholes? Do any bridges need maintenance? What about next year’s priorities? Why not salt away part of the surplus to cover some of those expenses and, with that, help to lower the tax bills that will show up in residents’ mailboxes? It’s their money, after all.
Maybe some of the money could go into the county’s rainy day fund, to protect against the economic downturn that, at some point, will come around again.
Budgeting, as Legislator Thomas Loughran, D-Amherst, observed, is about setting priorities. The county established those priorities when it first approved the 2018 budget and, either through good luck or bad planning, had millions of dollars left over. There will always be more defensible projects that the county can undertake, but in a high-tax state, it should resist the urge to treat a surplus as a bonus.