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GOP effort to slash Erie County tax levy fails as Democrats opt for a smaller cut

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2022 proposed Erie County budget (copy) (copy)

Erie County legislators failed to reach an agreement on the Erie County budget Tuesday, so it is unlikely to get unanimous support.

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An attempt by Republican-supported Erie County legislators to reduce property tax collections next year, in light of more than $200 million in additional federal stimulus money and year-end budget surpluses, went nowhere Tuesday.

Instead, the Democratic majority voted to move forward a budget amendment package that reduced County Executive Mark Poloncarz's 2022 budget proposal by $1.48 million, instead of the $32 million recommended by the minority caucus.

Assuming the Democratic amendment package is approved on Thursday, a likely outcome since the Democrats hold a 7-4 majority, the county would see its property tax levy grow by $7.8 million, or 2.5%, instead of $9.3 million. That's would be similar to the tax levy increase adopted last year.

Both Democratic and Republican-supported legislators blamed the other side for the failure to reach a compromise deal. Tuesday's budget session was a precursor to a final vote on the $1.8 billion county budget coming Thursday.

Legislature Chairwoman April Baskin, D-Buffalo, said she met with the minority caucus to try and reach a compromise, but those legislators wouldn't consider a deal unless the cuts resulted in no tax levy increase. She and other Democrats said they were unwilling to cut property taxes that much in light of uncertainty regarding future sales tax revenue, rising Covid rates and the fragile state of the economy.

"We don't know what we're facing – none of us do," Baskin said. Referring to the minority caucus' argument that the county is seeing a once-in-a-generation influx of new federal revenue and surplus money, she said, "What generation has ever seen the impact of Covid the way that we have, fiscally, health-wise, community-wise? It's not the year to get super, super fancy with putting the county in a position where we couldn't recover from a financial crisis."

Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said he never shut the door on compromise. He faulted the Democratic majority for bowing to political pressure from the county executive and making no effort to defend or explain their budget package on the floor.

Under the Democratic budget amendments, the county property tax rate would fall to $4.31 per $1,000 of assessed property value, the lowest rate since at least 1960. But because of rising property values, new development, and state tax adjustments that vary from by municipality, the county's overall property tax collections have been rising every year, even as tax rates have fallen.

Baskin criticized the minority caucus for not submitting any grant allocations for community and nonprofit organizations in their own districts. That harms their constituents, she said.

In next year's budget, Democrats are allocating themselves $150,000 per legislator to distribute to community groups, which are itemized in their amendment package. That excludes another $2.1 million in "urban initiatives" benefiting the Democrat-represented cities of Buffalo, Lackawanna and Tonawanda. The Democrats were willing to give the minority caucus $75,000 each, just like this year.

But three of the four Republican-supported legislators refused to submit any list of personal district grants – also known as pork-barrel spending – despite Baskin's requests. She said it's not transparent to give those legislators an unspecified pot of money, so they will get nothing. The only Republican legislator to submit a list was John Mills, R-Orchard Park.

Lorigo said he, Chris Greene, R-Clarence, and Frank Todaro, R-Lancaster, refused to submit any list of pork-barrel spending grants because Baskin told them that if they gave her a list, that meant they supported the Democratic budget package. Mills also has not pledged to support the budget.

The minority caucus proposed an amendment that would give $100,000 in district spending grants to each legislator, regardless of political party, but it was defeated.

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I use the Erie County government beat to find issues and stories that tell us something important about how we live. An alumna of the Columbia Journalism School and Buffalo News staff reporter since 2000, I can be reached at stan@buffnews.com

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