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The Editorial Board: Erie County legislators give short shrift to their budgeting duty

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The Erie County Legislature failed taxpayers in its fundamental responsibility of reviewing the pending county budget.

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A lesson in Governing 101 for members of the Erie County Legislature: Rarely is anything more important than the annual budget on which you pass judgment. Perhaps you didn’t know.

A budget declares the county’s priorities for the coming year. In the way it allocates public dollars, it tells taxpayers, “These are the decisions we made with the authority you granted us as public servants. It’s what we think is important.”

But with their indifferent and sloppy review of the 2023 spending plan, legislators, in effect, told county taxpayers “We don’t think much of this matters, at all.” Not public works, not parks, not libraries – not even the offices of the sheriff and district attorney. If the care it devoted to these hearings is any indication, the Legislature’s attitude to the 2023 budget can be summed up in a single word: “Whatever.”

For reasons that remain unclear, the Legislature this year compressed hearings that normally require two days to complete into a 5 1/2-hour marathon, providing no more than 15 minutes each to county department heads. Even worse, six of them – including Probation, Central Police Services and Mental Health, and the Comptroller’s Office – were allotted five minutes each.

That’s what the Legislature deemed as adequate for its critical oversight of a budget totaling $2.1 billion.

“It was absurd,” said District 7 Legislator Timothy Meyers, chairman of the Finance and Management Committee. He said he didn’t put the schedule together, but if he’s not responsible for this dereliction of duty, then who is? Is the committee chairman without authority?

The budget, proposed by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, was a responsible one. It included $14.2 million more than last year for the sheriff’s office – including 57 new jobs as part of a plan to reduce overtime. It also provided $2.3 million more for pay for upgrades in the District Attorney’s Office. The budget provided a substantial increase in funding for the public library system. What is more, it did all of this even while lowering the county’s average property tax rate.

A responsible legislature – even one dominated by same party as the county executive – might be interested in poking into those weeds a little more. Not because it automatically doubts Poloncarz’s priorities, or even his numbers. It ought to be because its members are automatically determined to meet the fundamental obligation of a separate and equal branch of county government.

That didn’t happen.

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