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'Failure in communication' puts $2M hole in Erie County budget

When Ralph Mohr took his seat last week to speak at an Erie County budget hearing, he said it was just as well that legislators hadn't eaten lunch yet because they would lose their appetites.

Then the elections commissioner dropped the news: Because of a "failure in communication," the proposed budget for the board that runs all county elections is short $2 million. And the Legislature needs to find the money to cover that gap.

It turns out that Board of Elections administrators never submitted a proposed budget for next year, even though it was due to the county Budget Division back in August.

And the county's budget director, Robert Keating, never followed up with the board's two elections commissioners to find out why their budget request was missing.

Instead, the Budget Division guesstimated on behalf of the Board of Elections – completely omitting the costs associated with next year's presidential primary. The guesstimates also omitted the costs of a potential special election for the 27th Congressional District as well as the increased costs associated with early voting.

The division listed the guesstimates on its budget document as "2020 department requests." Those numbers were identical to County Executive Mark Poloncarz's budget recommendations.

"So what are we going to do?" asked Legislature Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo. "You’re telling us we have to talk it over with Budget. Why didn’t the Board of Elections talk it over with Budget?"

Silence.

"That’s a problem," Lorigo finally said. "And now it’s our problem."

County officials expect this year's budget to end with a surplus of more than $7 million, so the surprise budget misadventure should not be hard to overcome. It does reveal, however, a breakdown in the county's budgeting process, given that neither the county administration nor the Legislature were aware of the problem until last week.

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The Board of Elections staff was "busy doing other stuff," said Mohr, the Republican elections commissioner. Because of distractions caused by early voting preparations, he said, the board's submission of its $12 million budget proposal for next year "fell through the cracks."

Jeremy Zeller, the county Democratic Party chairman who's also the Democratic elections commissioner, sat beside Mohr at the hearing but said nothing.

"Jeremy doesn’t want to talk at all, I’m sure, on this one," Mohr said.

Mohr later told The Buffalo News that Zellner's Democratic office manager at the Board of Elections was responsible for sending in the budget proposal but never did. He also said earlier conversations with the Budget Division staff by his own Republican staffers were slow moving and frustrating.

Zellner told The News he recognizes the need for more oversight.

"I plan on being a lot more hands-on with the budget process moving forward," Zellner said. "And I plan to have a lot more direct communication with the budget director from now on."

Among the many disparities, the Budget Division listed the "department request" for professional services, which includes the pay for all election inspectors, at $1.7 million. The department's actual request is $2.8 million.

Both Keating and Mohr said that Board of Elections and Budget Division staffers were in communication but their interactions broke down. Mohr said neither he nor Zellner realized their budget proposal had never been submitted. In retrospect, Keating said he should have called the commissioners to alert them to the problem.

"I’m the one who did their budget because they didn’t do it," he said. "I thought they’d be a little bit angry, but I didn’t think they’d be $2 million angry."

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