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Editorial: A balanced Erie County budget

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has presented to the public a plain vanilla $1.7 billion budget for 2020.

Indeed, one might call it the perfect election-year package, gift-wrapped and delivered two weeks earlier than expected. Timing is everything and the general election is only one month away.

The county executive has crafted a budget that, apart from new state-mandated positions, offers to do what residents expect – controlling costs while taking care of roads and bridges, education, technology and human services.

But those mandates: Most of 69 new positions the budget proposes are tied to new state requirements regarding the District Attorney’s Office, the county Health Department, the Sheriff’s Office and the Probation Department.

All may be defensible, but the cost to taxpayers is $2.3 million. In the DA’s Office, for example, 18 new positions are tied to reforms that are meant to speed up criminal trials. Nevertheless, they add to the costs that local taxpayers must absorb in a state where local taxes are high and can be crushing.

Poloncarz’s budget nonetheless limits the increase in spending and lowers the county tax rate. Expenditures would rise by 1.67%, or $19 million over the current year while the tax levy – the total amount of property taxes collected – would increase by $10.8 million or 3.5%, because of rising property values. That’s a larger increase than in the current year’s budget, but smaller than the prior three years.

With those higher values, the projected the countywide tax rate – the amount of taxes paid per $1,000 of assessed value – would fall to $4.72 from $4.84. Again, the tax rate would decline because Erie County property values are increasing overall.

Of course, the looming threat to Erie County and every other municipality is the economy which, at some point, experts predict will weaken. Roughly one-third of the county’s budget – close to $500 million – is supported by sales tax revenues. If it goes down it will signal trouble, though the county has a buffer in its reserves and a strong property tax base.

The budget does a good job remaining under the state property tax cap and using no undesignated county savings. It also lacks any exciting new initiatives. “We don’t have the money for it,” Poloncarz said, describing the budget proposal as “lean,” though driven by those largely unfunded state mandates.

The state too often shirks its responsibility when instituting initiatives, however fair and necessary, by not coming up with a way to pay the bill or at least defray most of the cost. Besides the additions to the DA’s Office, the Health Department would get 12 new jobs to meet stricter lead poisoning testing standards. While that will help protect children, it will also add about 1,500 new lead poisoning cases and environmental assessments to the department’s already full slate of work.

The budget also includes a significant raise for whoever wins next month’s county executive election. The increase of $14,948 will produce a salary of $118,376 and was recommended by the independent Citizens Salary Review Commission. Other county officials will also get raises but, as with the county executive, only after the next election in those offices.

Poloncarz is running for reelection, so the budget will inevitably – and appropriately – be viewed through that lens. But it appears on first view to be a responsible and conservative document that meets growing state demands while limiting the impact on property owners.

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