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You asked, we answered: Why millions in county surplus isn't going to taxpayers

When Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz put forward a plan to allocate $45 million in leftover county money from 2018 toward various county programs and community organizations, it launched a debate among county legislators about whether there were better ways to spend that money.

And it led to questions among many readers about why the money needs to be spent at all instead of being given back to taxpayers.

Thanks in part to much higher than anticipated sales tax revenues and an odd billing cycle for Erie County Medical Center last year, the county was left with a higher-than-usual amount of year-end money.

The county is setting aside $31 million for expenses related to ECMC. Of the remaining money, Poloncarz wants to release $7.5 million in previously committed funding for the expansion of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and for the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens.

Other big-ticket items include money to cover legal settlements, remediation of the old Lincoln School site in Lackawanna, and social services programs to assist families and provide job training to welfare recipients.

Digital Engagement Editor Qina Liu helped compile these questions from readers who reacted to our original story.

From Dennis Delaney: How often is there a cash surplus of this amount to work with? The county has saved money by letting infrastructure (roads, bridges, Scajaquada Creek) go far too long until this election year. I'm surprised that there's even a question as to what to do with the surplus. Save some, but spend more on county issues.

From Diane Krebs Knapp: How come there is surplus money? Seems like we’ve been overtaxed!

Tan: When county government is responsibly run, it is normal to have some money left at the end of the year, which can help build reserves for lean years and short-term needs. But it is always a balancing act. If too much money is left, then the county executive is open to accusations of overtaxing residents. If too little or no money is left, the county executive is open to accusations of overspending and bad budgeting.

In the spring, the county executive sends the County Legislature his proposed year-end budget balancing amendments, which is a series of recommendations of what to do with money remaining from the prior year. Then the County Executive's Office and the Legislature typically negotiate over competing priorities before the Legislature takes action and the county closes its books.

The more money left over, the bigger the debate over what should be done with it. For instance, while some might consider road repair to be the No. 1 issue, others might see alleviating poverty or enhancing public safety as the first priority.

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From @bethinblack on Twitter: Can someone actually explain what the policy is here? Shouldn't it go into the next year's spending and reduce people's taxes for the next year? But if they "must" spend it, how about giving to those that need it most, the poorest areas of Buffalo?

Tan: Some of the leftover money must be spent for financial obligations the county incurred last year, or should have incurred last year, but didn't pay. Beyond that, decisions on how to allocate the money are made in the political arena.

Poloncarz can make reasoned arguments that surplus money should be set aside to help offset big bills that the county anticipates coming this year or to pay for previous commitments. For instance, he would point to giant estimated payments owed to ECMC and money already pledged to the Albright-Knox and Botanical Gardens – money the county would have to borrow and pay interest on if it didn't have the cash.

But there are plenty of counterarguments, and millions of dollars left to fight over. That's where the philosophical and political debate gets hot. For instance, Poloncarz has earmarked hundreds of thousands of dollars in surplus funds for various anti-poverty and social services-related programs. Some argue that even more should be spent, while others argue that the county should be saving all that money.

From @BvkBobo on Twitter: Then why is my 2019 county tax rate higher?! 

From @AAszkler on Twitter: Why not give it back to the taxpayers?

From Mark Rieker: It would be nice to cut taxes then. Why do you feel the need to find some place to spend it?

Tan: The tax rate for 2019 was set in 2018, but during budget deliberations last fall, many legislators made this exact argument – that the county was going to be flush with cash this year because of the strong economy and high sales tax revenues.

They argued that 2019 represented the best opportunity to cut taxes for county residents. While Poloncarz has cut the property tax rate while in office, the county actually has been collecting more taxes from residents because property values continue to rise.

The bid by legislators to collect less tax money from residents failed by one vote. Instead, an agreement was reached that earmarked $10 million more for county road repair and gave legislators more money to fund various community organizations in their districts.

The Legislature could still vote to move all nonessential spending into its reserves and to use that money to offset taxes for 2020. But again, other county priorities are competing for that money, including initiatives designed to boost tourism, alleviate poverty, address public safety and repair transportation infrastructure.

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From Michael Michalak: Why do they have to spend it? How about eliminating part of the "temporary" sales tax increase from the mid-1980s instead?

Tan: While Poloncarz is proposing to spend most of the surplus money from 2018, he also proposes moving $2.7 million into county reserves.

As far as eliminating part of the "temporary" 1 percent additional sales tax set by the county to alleviate a budget crisis in 1985, forget about it. That's never going to happen because that "temporary" tax revenue is being used to offset recurring county expenses. There's a reason the word "temporary" has been in quotes for decades.

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