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Winners and losers in fight for Erie County's millions in surplus

The Erie County Legislature's fight over how to spend millions of dollars in year-end surplus has ended.

Clear winners emerged.

  • The Albright-Knox Art Gallery will receive $5 million for its museum expansion. The Republican-supported minority tried to to cut that funding but failed. The Erie County Botanical Gardens will receive $2.5 million for its expansion project.
  • Anti-poverty programs received $1.2 million from county lawmakers on top of the hundreds of thousands of dollars the county executive previously earmarked.
  • The cities of Buffalo, Lackawanna and Tonawanda, which normally don't get big chunks of cash from the county surplus, received $600,000. Democratic lawmakers negotiated the money into the spending package.
  • Body cameras for the Sheriff's Office became a priority in the Legislature, which approved $600,000 to begin implementing a program. The sheriff hadn't asked for the money.
  • Angola Agricultural Park, a new agro-park, will receive $1.76 million for infrastructure, utility and other site work costs.

And there were losers.

  • County taxpayers hoping for a tax cut. Not only will the county spend most of the surplus money it had left from 2018, but the original $2.7 million recommended by County Executive Mark Poloncarz to roll over into county savings was cut to about $550,000 after the Legislature approved the revised spending package.
  • The Republican-supported minority caucus, thwarted in its efforts to cut Albright-Knox spending, also had all its budget amendments defeated. The caucus made some political hay at Thursday's Legislature meeting, which may bear future dividends come election season.

Chairwoman April Baskin, D-Buffalo, called the spending package researched and reasonable. It creates "equity and equality" in Erie County, she said.

Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, described the spending package as a lost opportunity for taxpayers and labeled the money earmarked to cities as a "slush fund."

The county government had a much higher-than-normal surplus last year, due to billing quirks related to Erie County Medical Center and higher-than-anticipated sales tax revenue. After accounting for money previously committed or earmarked for anticipated expenses, the county was sitting on roughly $14 million that could be allocated elsewhere.

Erie County has millions in surplus money. The problem: How to spend it?

The Republican-supported minority caucus, still chafing over its blocked efforts to cut the property tax levy last fall, criticized Poloncarz of saying he had no money available to cut taxes but ended the year so flush with cash. They also accused him of committing $5 million to the Albright-Knox expansion in 2016 without any formal discussion or agreement with the Legislature.

The deputy county executive, Albright-Knox director and Buffalo Public Schools administrator for intergovernmental affairs appeared before the Legislature to lobby for the $5 million expenditure and to urge the Legislature to keep its public commitment to the gallery expansion. They pointed out that public funding was used to leverage much higher private funding for the museum.

"Art is the anchor of our civilization," said Director Janne Sirén.

Democrats supported the $5 million transfer, but minority caucus members suggested that some of the money should be borrowed instead, with more cash allocated to other needs like initiatives to curb poverty.

"I think this $5 million amount has been overpoliticized," said Chairwoman April Baskin. "The Albright-Knox is helping to alleviate poverty through arts initiatives."

Lorigo, a museum member, said he received calls from two billionaires urging him to support the $5 million allocation, which he said reinforced his view that the museum has plenty of wealthy patrons who can afford to give more than taxpayers should have to.

Minority members also took shots at the $600,000 in county grants to Erie County's cities, a component of the Democratic majority's wish list. The funding benefits the districts of Democratic legislators Howard Johnson and Kevin Hardwick and Poloncarz's hometown of Lackawanna, which is also in challenger Lynne Dixon's district.

City legislators said their residents pay the same county taxes as everyone else and deserve some return on investment. The city money will be divvied up as follows:

  • Buffalo: $300,000 for roadwork, mostly in the downtown business district.
  • Lackawanna: $100,000 for buildings and grounds renovations to Lackawanna Youth Diamond Sports and Lackawanna Little Loop football and cheerleading; and $50,000 to be designated for a new Lackawanna dog park, which will be located in the East Milnor playground.
  • City of Tonawanda: $125,000 for matching a grant and rehabilitating the municipal docks on the Niagara River/Erie Canal/Ellicott Creek and $25,000 for building a handicap-accessible playground at Niawanda Park.

Initial plans to send $2.7 million into the county's unrestricted reserve accounts was reduced to $550,000, said Budget Director Robert Keating.

While such reserve allocations have been lower in years when budgets were tight, this year's deposit is considered smaller than usual in light of the high amount of available surplus money from last year.

Even so, with the addition of $550,000 to the county's rainy day fund, Keating said the unrestricted reserves will comprise 8.8 percent of this year's general fund budget, which is $44 million above the county charter's minimum balance requirement of 5 percent.

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