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Poloncarz eyes June 1 reopening as counties prepare for long haul

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said Wednesday he doubts Erie County can meet all state-mandated goals by the May 15 end of New York's current "pause" order, but added June 1 remains a possibility for rolling back some of the state's restrictions.

That's a short term concern for the leader of upstate New York's biggest county. But as he and Dutchess County Executive Marcus J. Molinaro pointed out in a conference call with statewide reporters, the long term presents even more daunting challenges neither could ever anticipate before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Now counties and other municipalities across the state are staring at billions of dollars worth of deficits, laying off or furloughing county employees and curtailing services – all while dealing with thousands of coronavirus victims under treatment in their hospitals.

"Life is going to look a lot different," said Molinaro, the 2018 Republican candidate for governor.

The Wednesday discussion was arranged by Stephen J. Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties, to address the immediate needs of front-line governments and to anticipate what lies down the road. Both county executives say they are looking to reopen as much of the non-essential business and social activity curtailed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's "pause" order as soon as possible.

But they also note the need to fulfill seven new criteria imposed by the governor for lifting some restrictions. Poloncarz said Erie County is making progress, but added that the higher rate of local hospitalizations and deaths compared to cities such as Pittsburgh and Cleveland "kind of scares me."

"We still need more work to do before we get to the point where we're comfortable to know that reopening will not set us back," he said.

One unfulfilled requirement remains the need to expand contact testing to track those who have tested positive for the coronavirus. Poloncarz said Erie County will devote 277 employees to provide at least 30 contact tracers per 100,000 residents. Poloncarz said Erie County is training Social Services and Senior Services employees to participate.

"We continue to try to reach the parameters set by the governor," he said, "so we can meet that metric as soon as possible."

Poloncarz and Molinaro said county governments face debilitating losses from usual sources such as sales and mortgage recording taxes. Sales tax alone will be down $2 billion statewide, Acquario said, adding that some cities and other municipalities that share those receipts will also be affected.

Other taxes such as mortgage recording and hotel occupancy will be down, Acquario added, while counties face many added costs and loss of reimbursements, too.

"We are on the front lines of responding to Covid-19," Poloncarz said. "Throughout this entire crisis, counties have taken the lead. So it's very important we get the resources we need."

Poloncarz said any new round of federal stimulus funding must be directed to counties, noting the 13.1% mid-year reduction in spending he has already requested of his department heads.

The two county executives also noted that some New Yorkers are protesting against the state and local restrictions, while others ignore social distancing recommendations as better weather drives more people outdoors. Molinaro said local governments need to be "brutally honest with what we expect from the public."

"It will be more complex getting out of this than it was getting in," he said.

Some restrictions will have to continue, they said, with Poloncarz noting his lack of a haircut for the past two months.

"I haven't looked like this since high school," he said.

"We have to do a balancing act," he added. "Lives are more important in the long run than money."

Molinaro said some businesses may suffer losses unseen since the Depression, but that local governments need to respond by relaxing building codes or granting other latitudes that, for example, allow restaurants to expand into outdoor areas.

"This is one of those moments when local governments are critical because the public tends to trust us a little more," he said. "We need to use that effectively."

Both county leaders said some type of layoff or furlough plan may loom in the future absent additional aid from Washington. Poloncarz said Erie County may have to explore the issue in late May or early June without help.

"We cannot continue this forever," he said.

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