Tag Archives: Erie County Budget

Obvious Does Not Mean Correct

11 May

For those that do not follow urban planning issues regularly, locally in Buffalo or nationally, note that this graphic has been making the rounds:

Image courtesy joeplanner.blogspot.com

Chuck Banas, on his blog Joe the Planner, used the map in a piece he wrote on sprawl. It was picked up by Urbanphile and the generally well-respected Aaron Renn, urban policy commentator, and then later viralized to sites such as this. The national pro-urban/anti-sprawl advocates did not develop a sudden keen interest in Buffalo and our individual issues. Rather, in a classic example of shopping for facts to reinforce an already set opinion, the combination of Buffalo’s growing urban footprint and stagnated population numbers provided another stark (and seemingly newly discovered) example to use to support their agenda.

The headlines of the later pieces make two claims: 1) sprawl causes government deficits, and 2) you are stupid to believe otherwise. I find this to generally be a theme in anti-sprawl advocacy – the evils of this scourge are so self-evident that they don’t require explanation or defense. Are you an idiot? Don’t you get it? Sprawl is bad. See – it makes us broke (and causes obesity, and all other manner of societal ills of the day).

Note how blissfully free of facts or figures each piece is (to be fair, Mr. Banas provides more stats than the rest combined – more on his figures in a moment). In fact, only the much-reported census numbers get any real mention by Urbanphile or Streetsblog. One is then left to intuitively assume that an urban area three times larger is three times as expensive, and that this expensive infrastructure is causing bankruptcies.

Allow me to now intrude some of those facts and figures into an otherwise pristine echo-chamber. For Buffalo, or the Erie/Niagara County metro-region, to be used as an example of sprawl + population loss = bankruptcy, one would think we should actually be bankrupt. But of course we aren’t, and after parental supervision control boards were set up for the City of Buffalo and Erie County, we have been running surpluses. Municipalities that are going bankrupt have been in the South and West, that experienced both sprawl and population growth.

Likewise, if excess infrastructure was causing municipal financial pressure, one would think that spending on such would be a significant portion of the budget. That too, is wrong. Erie County has a total budget of $1.14 Billion. The Highway Department’s budget is $20 Million, or 2% of the total, of which the county pays $12.8 Million. The Highway Department’s budget could double, and pick up the federal matching share, and we’d still have surplus money from this year left over.

Of course, the cost of sprawl is more than the county’s highway budget. There are town highway budgets, sewer districts, longer garbage collection routes, longer commutes for workers, redundant school districts and a host of other costs. Let’s look at a few of these one by one, starting with the sprawliest spots. The cost for Erie County to provide sewer services to exurban areas, the fringe of new subdivisions, is $45 Million. The Town of Clarence spends $4.6 Million on their highway budget, and another $4.3 Million on water and sewer. Amherst spends even more – $40 Million combined on highways and infrastructure. Grand Island drops $2.8 Million on roads, and with its own water district and lots of sewer pipes, another $10 Million on total infrastructure. Real money, certainly, but small as a percentage of total government expenditures or compared to budget surpluses. Older towns and cities (Buffalo, Lackawanna, Cheektowaga, Tonawanda, Kenmore – the yellow spaces on the map) have costs too, of course, as infrastructure ages, but these would not be sprawl costs.

Which gets to the root of the problem. Teasing out how much of each budget is sprawl induced, and how much would exist anyway, is challenging. Transit Road would exist, sprawl or not, but would require less regular investment. Unfortunately, Clarence’s town budget in 1950 is not readily available. Even if it were, however, it would be overly simplistic to attribute every change in the budget purely to sprawl – the cost of materials, maintenance standards and practices, salaries and benefits matter at least as much as total mileage of roads maintained. 

Determining the cost of sprawl in school district budgets is also difficult. The school district in our region with the largest student population, Buffalo, also spends significantly more than most, $22,000 per pupil at last reckoning. Amherst spends $15K and Lancaster $14K. Would the total cost of teaching every pupil in Erie County go down if everyone lived within the 1950 boundary line? How can you be sure when some school districts, less dense but with the same geographic size as Buffalo (or larger), are spending less per pupil? Perhaps geography isn’t the main cost driver. But more on this in a moment.

Reflecting on these numbers, it appears the anti-sprawl advocates are subconsciously making an argument that duplicated and redundant services are prohibitively expensive, not necessarily expanded ones. Mr. Banas seems to understand this, as he spends considerable time in his column discussing the duplication issue, and advocating for a regional government. Here I find common cause with him, though I find it interesting that his commenters do not, and even Mr. Renn wades in to note that the regionalism solution is tangential and superfluous to the real issue at hand: sprawl. Note again the self-licking ice cream cone.

We still haven’t considered the cost to the citizen, in commute time and fuel, to live in a sprawltastic suburb. If everyone lived in a denser area, workers would theoretically have more time to be productive and extra disposable income to spend on curbside coffee houses, money formerly spent on gasoline. But here too the reality of Buffalo, our specific situation, intrudes. In a comparable orgy of statistics, Mr. Banas spends a bit of time noting driving patterns, and factors in that WNYers drive 53% more now than we did in 1980. This sounds bad, except he also notes the average American now drives 151% more. Combine that with Buffalo’s famously nation-leading low commute time, and it would seem this portion of sprawl’s ills does not unduly affect us.

Back to the original proposition: we’re broke (but we’re not – see above) and sprawl is the thing that did it. To be fair, while Erie County’s, the City of Buffalo’s, and most school district’s finances are in fine shape now, all warn of trouble on the horizon. So while the sprawl-related financial strains are a mixed bag at best, it is worth asking where the real problem is. What will make our community broke? A fair place to start is Erie County’s largest budget line: Medicaid.

New York’s Medicaid mandate is the largest in the country and costs double the national average, equal to the combined programs of California and Texas. Medicaid costs the average New York family of four $5000 a year. Compare that to the $64 a year in gasoline an idling Buffalo commuter wastes in sprawl-induced traffic under the tyranny of $4/gallon gas. Closer to home, Erie County has a Department of Social Services budget of $577 Million (the lion’s share of which is Medicaid), about half the $1.14 Billion total and far more than the sum of the infrastructure budgets of the county and assembled towns. $577 Million is more than the combined 2009 profit of all 18 public traded companies based in WNY – National Fuel, Greatbatch, First Niagara, M&T, Columbus-McKinnon, Moog, CTG, Gibraltar, Sovran, Financial Institutions, Astronics, Graham, Cleveland BioLabs, Mod-Pac, Evans Bank, Rand, Taylor and E&E. $577 Million is 1.3% of our region’s total GDP of $43 Billion. Buffalo is ranked 48th in population nationally but 55th in GDP. We punch below our weight, not surprisingly, as a third of the City of Buffalo lives below the poverty line. Providing services to the poor who cannot afford it costs money – $577 Million currently, and many advocate for more. In other words, its not the sprawl that’s going to make us broke, its our generalized poverty and neediness.

There are two sides to this social services coin. Providing healthcare and housing to the impoverished and elderly is a major industry in Buffalo – our largest employers are healthcare conglomerates who provide new hearts and knees to those that can pay, and emergency medical services and the bare minimum to those who can’t. Federal Medicare payments are a major influx of cash to our region, and we’re building new facilities at the Medical Campus and ECMC to grow the already profitable portions of the business. Likewise, nursing homes are going up far faster than downtown lofts, as our region gets greyer. And it is no coincidence that some of our most successful grassroots non-profits and social justice advocates ultimately get their funding from federal HUD block grants targeting home refurbishment. 

On the other hand, the cost to healthcare providers of caring for those on Medicaid does not match the reimbursement rate, and clinics and nursing homes are closing. Smart, able, young talent is doing great work on the West Side to improve the lives of our neediest . . . and thus they are not entrepreneurs starting innovative companies, making money and reinvesting capital in the region. Buffalo’s big business is caring for the elderly, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless, and curing the cancers of an industrial legacy. No one gets rich doing that work, and that’s why we’re broke.

Obama’s Erie County Budget

16 Feb

In ground breaking news, WNY’s politicians are not the only one’s incapable of tackling large budgetary issues. We have all grown exasperated watching Erie County argue over a hyper-politicized 6% of the budget, and a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of arts spending. Unfortunately, President Obama’s latest gambit bears more than a passing resemblance to Chris Collins’s budget in one very important way – it addresses only the tiniest portion of the issue.

At least Erie County partially has an excuse, as 94% of their budget is federally mandated. President Obama has no such legal excuse, only political ones. The nation is calling for the federal deficit to be lowered. Polls show Americans don’t like how Obama is handling the budget. Even I can add two and two and realize Obama (cynically) should be more aggressive in deficit cutting. And yet his budget only addresses non-defense discretionary spending, or 10% – 15% of the $3.7 Trillion behemoth.

When you only pay attention to the smallest part of the budget, you can’t expect to make a big impact on the deficit. And Obama’s doesn’t. It cuts $1.1 Trillion over 10 years, with the largest chunk ($550 Billion) disappearing in 2012, largely through a rose-colored glasses assumption that tax revenues will rise. But deferred success is no success in Washington’s spending frenzy. Budget projections rarely become reality, as the following charts show.

The chart on the left was produced during FY 2009, after President Obama proposed his $900 Billion stimulus package (which ended up accounting for 65% of the deficit by itself); the chart on the right was produced one year later. A couple items of note.

First, these charts easily explain why Americans (generally, but mostly attributed to the electorally successful Tea Party) are concerned about deficits now when they weren’t 2 years ago. I’ll give you a hint – it’s not because the President is a black Muslim sleeper agent. The deficit lines used to be little, and now are really big. Over four times as big. Clinton earned us a surplus. Bush squandered it and created (at the time) record deficits. Obama has blown either set of deficits or surpluses out of the water with completely out of proportion shortfalls. 

Second, the projections are often significantly off from reality. In FY09, the White House projected a deficit of $1.75T, but fortunately we only ended up with a $1.4T shortfall. So far so good, but Obama’s hole is so deep that his $350B error was larger than 5 of Bush’s 8 total budget deficits. In 2009, they predicted a FY10 deficit of $1.2T, and in 2010, they upped it to $1.5T. In the end, it was $1.3Tish. What’s a $100B or two between friends? It’s worse for FY11, where the deficit was projected to be $850B and $1.4T in 2009 and 2010 respectively. Now its slated to actually be $1.65T. An $800B swing in two years, or roughly double the deficit total of any Bush year. What good is it to claim savings in 2012 when the projections swing so far, and lately, for the worse.

But, you say, these projections have a better chance of coming true, because Obama has already proposed his 2012 budget early! Yes, and he never got a 2011 budget passed at all – we’re still spending on 2010 continuing resolutions. There is much time between now and October 2012, the end of that fiscal year, and much time for Congress and the President to make mischief.

If the President wants to be serious about deficits, and thinks they matter (not all do – Cheney and Krugman being strange bedfellows), then he should address Social Security, Medicare, the Department of Defense, and discretionary spending, and move the budget pain up to this year, and each year after. Republicans have proposed (a few) ways to do this. John Boehner’s numbers may be off (its 107,000 workers hired in the last 2 years, not 200,000), but one has to wonder how all the federal bureaucratic work got done in the Dark Ages of 2009? How did the government function before, when it didn’t have all these indispensable functionaries and laborers? Likewise, Rep Jordan of Ohio (with Jim DeMint in the Senate) have proposed reducing the federal budget to 2006 levels, and keeping it there for a decade. I don’t think we need to freeze spending quite so long, but was 2006 so bad? Did the nation get defended, entitlement checks get paid, and policies implemented? We even added $250 Billion to the deficit that year, so with tax revenues down we may well still be digging a hole. I don’t remember 2006 as the darkest of American days – in fact, with no war in Iraq, I’m sure Obama could put that 2006 money (so to speak) to better use. Or, to put it another way, are our children twice as educated as 2001? Because spending has doubled. Spending and deficits have grown so fast, its hard to imagine there is no room to trim, discretionary, defense, or not.

The Politics of Cuts

14 Dec

Later today, we’ll stream the Erie County Legislature session at which Democrats will beg Legislator Kevin Hardwick (R, Tonawanda) to vote with their majority to override the 154 vetoes of the 2011 County Budget sent down by County Executive Chris Collins yesterday.

154 vetoes?  That’s a pretty stark rebuke of the County Legislature, eh?  Collins didn’t just leave it at the vetoes and said at his press conference “I know what I’m doing, they (County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz and the Legislature Democrats) do not.”

It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day transactional politics and the horrible pettiness of the budget process, but it pays to take a step back to see that this whole process is playing out just as Collins had hoped…in a political sense.

In 2011, Collins will face either Mark Poloncarz or Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul in the County Executive general election.  Poloncarz and Hochul are very popular in the cities of the county and in certain suburbs.  Hochul has an established base of support in the southtowns and in the inner ring suburbs.  Poloncarz is strong in the same areas and has done very well in parts of the Northtowns in his two tough campaigns for Comptroller.  Both potential candidates are significant threats to Collins’ re-election, especially if either can raise the money to compete with Collins’ million dollar campaign account.

Collins, being the politician that he is, saw an opportunity in this budget battle.  An opportunity to separate himself further from his potential opponents in the eyes of suburbanites.  He exploited the ever-growing city/suburb divide that exists in Erie County and worked to re-affirm to his base that he is a “no-nonsense” chief executive.

A homeowner in Getzville, Clarence, East Amherst, or Lancaster pays a hefty annual sum in property taxes.  Most of those taxes are due to their local school and town/village taxes, but they certainly don’t want to give another red cent to any government, especially Erie County.  Why?  Because Erie County Government is the one that least benefits them.

An administration source told me, “The idea is to foment a feeling that Collins is the guy who fights to keep money in the pockets of suburbanites and away from the ‘city people’ while Hochul and Poloncarz are left to pander to the urban base.  We want the anger and frustration of the urbanites, it creates an equal and opposite reaction from the suburbanites”

Well, that’s exactly the outcome, isn’t it?  Collins has had six weeks of daily news stories in the newspaper and on TV showing how the “city people” and Democrats are demanding the county teat be milked for their benefit.  His two-fisted urban programs while screaming from the mountaintops with radio ads and robocalls about big-spending liberals certainly benefits his re-election chances with the base.

After school programs for disadvantaged youth?  The average suburban voter thinks those people should pay for their own daycare.  Shakespeare in the Park or Irish Classical Theater?  The average suburban voter thinks those places should charge more for tickets.  After all, the suburban people don’t go to those shows!  Which is why Collins originally proposed funding for cultural organizations which suburban people enjoy, places like the Buffalo Zoo, the Philharmonic, the Darwin Martin House…not places like the Ujima Theater Company, El Museo or African Cultural Center.  Those are for the “other” people.

This is classic culture war stuff and the Democrats played into it, until yesterday.  They took the financial approach to demonstrate – in writing – that their budget amendments don’t increase property taxes.  This put Collins on the defensive and forced him to up the ante by declaring the entire amended budget null and void.  His press conference was a study in temper tantrums, he insulted everyone but failed to show how his budget numbers differ from those of the legislature.  A compliant media was there to not ask him any tough questions, they just like the theater of it all.

Now, we wait to see if Legislator Hardwick is swayed by numbers or promises.  The County Executive has failed to “show his work” on the budget and his budget director is on vacation.  I doubt that Collins will publicly provide the numbers to back up his assertion that the amended budget raises taxes.  Why should he bother?  Many suburban voters just want their roads paved, free Sheriff road patrols and the city people to stay right where they’re at…in the city.

Collins has framed the debate for the 2011 election.  Are you with him as a self-proclaimed defender of suburban wallets or will you stand with Hochul and Poloncarz who will be portrayed as big spending Democrats?

I’m betting that Collins may have overplayed his hand on this one and given an opening to an underdog Democratic candidate in 2011.

County Executive Issues Budget Veto Statement

13 Dec

Erie County Executive Chris Collins has responded to the Erie County Legislature’s Amended 2011 Budget and press conference.  His response, in short; go get yer shinebox!

Collins’ budget veto message was clocked into the legislature this afternoon and can be read in its entirety by clicking here.

Here are some highlights from the message:

As County Executive, I understand the Legislature’s desire to fully fund all programs, organizations and agencies that have a history of receiving county support. But as elected leaders tasked with the financial stewardship of previous county tax dollars, we have an obligation to look beyond our desires and make decisions that are responsible, Unfortunately, your Honorable Body amended the proposed budget in a way that can be described as anything but responsible.

If the Legislature’s additional spending actions were left intact, it would result in more than a $8 Million property tax increase for the hardworking taxpayers of Erie County. Therefore, I am vetoing all 154 spending additions passed by the Legislature. Let me be unequivocal: each and every override of these 154 vetoes would increase property taxes on county taxpayers.

In his veto statement, Collins makes no effort to demonstrate how, in fact, the amended budget would actually increase taxes.  He just states it as fact.

The missteps taken in your amendments to the 2011 proposed budget became evident when the Division of Budget and Management ran the basic mathematical calculations of the proposed amendments.  Assuming for a moment that all amendments are lawful and procedurally proper, which they are not, the result would be a net tax increase of nearly $1million.  The Comptroller’s and Majority Leader’s claims that this package cut spending by more than $100,000 are simply false and untrue, and another example of their sheer inability to conduct competent budget calculations. (emphasis mine)

Again, Collins provides no evidence to his claim.  He simply restates his position and insults the Comptroller and the Legislature.

Collins is attempting to rule by fiat, which he cannot do.  “The County Executive declared the entire Erie County Legislature Amendment package null and void and vetoed the entire package.  He doesn’t have the power to do that.” said Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz.

Collins did however achieve a “compromise” with the Republican caucus to shift $3 million in Federal Medical Assistance Percentages (FMAP) dollars provided to Erie County through the federal stimulus package to the Erie County Library system.  Presumably, he brokered a deal with the Library leadership and they will accept this funding without further complaint.  Collins is also betting that this contribution will buy the support of two members of the Republican caucus who stated they were willing to support the amended budget package if it could be shown to not increase taxes, Kevin Hardwick and John Mills.

Earlier today, the Democrat majority provided evidence that the amended budget package did not raise taxes and called the bluff of these two legislators.  They now have a decision to make, will they accept the word of the County Executive that his proprietary and secret budget calculations demonstrate a tax increase of $2.62 per household annually in Erie County or will they trust the actual numbers provided by the Democrats?

If my name is Kevin Hardwick, I’m asking the County Executive to show his work before making a decision.

If Hardwick or Mills fails to vote with the Democrat majority and override the vetoes, the next step will be to take the budget to court and ask a judge to sort it out.

Maria Whyte to Chris Collins: Come Out And Plaaaaaaay

13 Dec

Forgive the allusion to the epic film, “The Warriors“, but Erie County Legislator Maria Whyte (D, Buffalo) is essentially banging three beer bottles together and asking  Erie County Executive Chris Collins and his gang to come out of hiding and back up their assertion that the amended Erie County Budget raises taxes.

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“Chris Collins is a schoolyard bully and we’re here to say enough is enough”, says Legislator Whyte.  “Collins has repeatedly said in his radio commercials and in robo-calls to voters that the amended Erie County budget raises taxes, he hasn’t shown anyone how that is true”.

Legislator Lynn Marinelli (D, Kenmore) added, “We’re a ‘show me”, not a ‘tell me’ legislature.  We’ve shown line by line how our budget returns money to the taxpayers and fully funds all cultural organization, the Erie County library and the Erie County Comptroller’s office, Mr. Collins has not shown us anything to the contrary.”

Today, the Democrats provided a full line by line accounting of the adjustments made to the County Executive’s proposed 2011 budget and distributed it to the media.  Click here to see the numbers.

Within the Spreadsheet you will find various worksheets. The sheet titled “2011 Legislature Amendments” is a compilation of all of the cuts that were approved to the Budget along with an explanation for each line. The sheet titled “FB Analysis” shows current and historical analysis of the amounts the Legislature approved for several fringe benefits lines in County Departments. The remainder of the worksheets simply break out the information included in the “2011 Legislature Amendments” worksheet by category.

The Legislature made some significant cuts in order to fully fund libraries, culturals and the several other departments. Most notably, cuts to salary for the Deputy County Executive, County Attorney and a reduction in the county risk retention fund and workers compensation account.

The County Executive had set aside $3 Million in the risk retention fund (used for defending the county in lawsuits) whereas the Legislature funded that line item at $1 Million for 2011. The legislature committee defended the cut by producing evidence that the remainder of the 2010 risk retention fund would roll over to 2011. The fund currently has $5.5 Million in deposits and the actual amount spent per year over the last three years was $2.69 Million.

“The Democrat Majority did not raise taxes.  No one should raise taxes in these tough economic times,” said Legislator Christina Bove (D-West Seneca), “and our amendment package reflects that priority.”

The County Executive was not present during the hearing and has yet to provide any document which provides this level of clarity on individual budget lines.

Also, the County Executive did not send anyone to the hearing from his budget team, including his Director of Budget and Management, Greg Gach, who is on vacation…during the budget crisis. Mr. Collins did have his Chief of Staff send a text message to the Legislature’s Chief of Staff to inform them that he would not be attending the meeting due to his work on his upcoming State of The County Address.

Priorities.

After the Legislature met, Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz held an impromptu press conference

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Shortly thereafter, the Democrat majority held their own press conference.

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Essentially, Maria Whyte is calling the bluff of Legislator Kevin Hardwick (R, Tonawanda) who said he would support the amended budget if it could be proven that it did not raise taxes.  Hardwick would be the critical tenth vote to override any of the potential vetoes from the County Executive.  Whyte feels she has done the work to demonstrate that and it is now up to Collins to prove otherwise.

Now, we wait to see if Collins comes out to play…

True Budget Woes

9 Dec

It seems particularly appropriate that during our collective hyperventilating over chump change in the Erie County budget that we should seek a comparative example to show what true austerity and funding cuts look like. Welcome back to Colorado Springs, a city I last profiled in my Grass is Not Always Greener series almost six months ago.

To review, Colorado Springs is growing a rapid clip thanks to massive federal investment, high tech jobs, and a multitude of displaced Californians. Despite the tax revenue benefits associated with significant increased growth, Colorado Springs has found itself in one of the worst financial situations in the country. When Erie County Chris Collins wishes to not raise taxes, he cuts a couple hundred grand to local theaters. In Colorado Springs, the city parks budget is cut from $20 million to $3 million. And that is just the start.

Community centers and museums were shuttered and youth programs canceled. Firefighter and police positions were eliminated. The two police helicopters were auctioned for $158,000 each. One of every three streetlights was turned off. Bus service was cut for evenings and weekends. All street repaving was canceled. Park restrooms were closed, and city trash cans were replaced by signs asking citizens to take their trash home with them. Community groups and the US Olympic Committee (HQ’d in the Springs) stepped in to privately fund some cut programs. But far from all. In the latest bid, the city is looking to sell its healthcare system to an out of town company. Think Strong Memorial buying ECMC.

How can Colorado Springs be in such dire straits? PFM did an analysis that Colorado Springs collects $402 in tax revenue per capita from its residents, far below the national average. Denver collects $1008. In comparison, in Erie County we spend $1100 per capita on Medicaid alone. The tax structures are almost incomparable. Of course, so are the budget woes.  

The upcoming year looks a bit brighter, so the city council is expecting to add back in previously cut programs. First on the list: streetlights.  If Buffalo couldn’t afford its electric bill, we’d consider ourselves a national laughing stock, and for good reason.

The Erie County budget rhetoric will continue. Maria Whyte breathlessly proclaimed that funding to smaller culturals is self-evidently justified because it is an investment in the community. Such black and white logic begs for two rhetorical conclusions: we should cut funding to everything not an investment, and ignore fiscal restraints on other such opportunities. I look forward to Legislator Whyte’s recommended cuts to Medicaid (prolonging the life of the poor is merely a drain on resources – hardly an investment) and a $100 million renewable energy infrastructure plan for the county. It is an investment, after all.

If, on the other hand, you recognize that budgeting requires funding some things you’d rather not, and not investing in everything deserving of public dollars, then be thankful we are arguing over hundreds of thousands for theaters, and not millions for lights and cops.

Erie County Legislature Meeting 11/30/2010

30 Nov

Here is the agenda for today’s Erie County Legislature meeting

Agenda 1 – Special Meeting

Agenda 2 – Annual Budget Meeting

The special meeting is a continuation of the meeting recessed last Tuesday, November 23rd, will reconvene today at 1:15 P.M., and immediately adjourn, in accordance with Erie County Legislature Rules of Order concerning laying the budget on the table for at least 48-hours prior to the Annual Budget Meeting.

Once Meeting No. 22 is adjourned, Meeting No. 23 (Annual Budget Meeting) will begin.  Today’s legislative actions will take place in the Chambers of the Legislature, 4th Floor at Old County Hall, 92 Franklin St., Buffalo.

Follow #ecleg or #ecbudget on Twitter for live updates and we’ll be streaming the video on wnymedia.net as well.

The budget amendment to be debated today, per the press release sent from Erie County Legislature Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams:

Buffalo, NY – Today the Chair of the Erie County Legislature, Barbara Miller-Williams (D-Buffalo, 3rd District) along with Legislator Christina W. Bove (D-West Seneca, 9th District) released a proposed amendment to the Erie County Budget for 2011. The budget amendment which was clocked in to the Legislature today and will be considered at tomorrow’s Annual Meeting to consider the Budget.

“I took a middle ground approach to craft an amendment that has a real possibility to achieve the necessary number of votes,” Miller-Williams explained. “by taking this action we can override any veto by the County Executive to assure that at the end of the day the Library and the cultural organizations actually will see the funding allocated in the budget.”

Any amendment to the budget needs 8 votes to pass the Legislature, but the County Executive can veto proposed additions to the 2011 Budget and the Legislature then must have a super majority to override the County Executive’s veto.

“The most important thing is to try to achieve results,” stated Bove. “I could find no sense in voting for something that would be vetoed with the result being that the Library and these cultural institutions would end up with nothing. This amendment is both reasonable and responsible. We need to try to get the funding that will be crucial to sustain these organizations – in the end that could be the real victory on Tuesday.”

“As Democrats it is vital that we work with our colleagues in this body as well as the County Executive to reach a solution that will do the most good for the residents of Erie County,” Miller-Williams said. “we face a difficult economic crisis and the balancing act is important, funding the culturals, adding hours to the libraries, having an audit function in the Comptroller’s office and being able to offer Primetime programs for youth are all very important in the eyes of the public. With this Amendment we have been responsive to the needs of the public and at the same time responsible to the taxpayers of Erie County. By crafting an amendment which might withstand a potential veto from the County Executive we assure that the organizations will receive their funding and I consider that a win-win situation for everyone.”

“In the end it is the results that matter,” Bove explained. “responsible legislation that achieves the best results for the residents of Erie County is the best way to govern – I believe this amendment is an example of the way government can, and should work.”

Budget Amendment, (.xls format)

Ray Walter Proposes New Funding For Culturals and Libraries

22 Nov

Last week, Erie County Legislator Ray Walter clocked into the Legislature record a letter he sent to Erie County Executive Chris Collins regarding a long term solution to the issue of funding for county libraries and cultural organizations.

Walter claims this is a means to implement a revenue sharing plan that would restore funding to the Buffalo and Erie Public Library System without raising taxes or increasing County spending in 2011.

In the letter, Legislator Walter outlines a plan to appropriate sales tax revenue toward funding for the libraries. According to the Agreement of Sales Tax Revenue Distribution, Erie County must share 64% of 3% of the sales tax revenue collected with municipalities and school districts.

Erie County Legislator Ray Walter (R, Clarence)

In a quote from his press release, Walter states that “For 2011, the amount shared with these groups for the 3% is projected to be $267,637,838. Utilizing 1.5% of the funds shared with the municipalities and school districts, and returning it to the libraries would result in $4,014,567 for the libraries, which more than covers the County’s spending reduction on the libraries.”

In addition, Legislator Walter proposes using 0.5%, which totals $1,338,189, for cultural funding. That figure would allow funding for cultural groups not included in the 2011 proposed budget.

That $5,352,756 total which would be carved out of the total sharing amount would be passed on to the municipalities and school districts across Erie County.

This move by Walter might be seen as a means to re-open the negotiation on how sales tax revenue is shared in order to get more revenue to the towns from the cities.  However, Walter says that isn’t his intent, “I am intentionally trying to avoid the prospect of renogotiating the sales tax agreement. I would like to see this proposal added on as an addendum or rider to the existing agreement.” The revenue sharing agreement is not a local law or a part of the County Charter, so it can be passed this year.

In order to solve the long-term funding problems for the libraries and cultural organizations of WNY, we need some creative thinking. Each year, funding cuts are proposed while activists clamor to maintain funding. Budget deficits in New York grow each year and new lines of funding will not appear out of thin air. Understanding that these quality of life institutions are crucial to a pleasant standard of living in this region requires we take a fresh look at the mechanisms for funding. Having us all bear a burden is probably the most creative approach taken to date.

It might not be the right solution, but it at least turns the conversation away from partisan politics towards different ideas.

Bad Government, Worse Politics

5 Oct

You may get sick of hearing it, but let me repeat the fundamental truth of American politics: the public does not want bigger government, or smaller government, but rather competent government. By that standard, Erie County continues to fail.

Kevin Gaughan’s legislature downsizing initiative may miss the ballot because two Board of Elections officials, themselves flawless personifications of the inbred Western New York entitlement-based political culture, have found a legal loophole they think they can squeeze through. Never mind that they allowed the same process last year, for a (failed) referendum sponsored by the wife of one of the board officials. Call the whole process Ianello’s Revenge.

Erie County’s property taxes, low by New York State’s otherworldly standards, are still nationally in the top 10, when compared to the percentage of the value of the house they are taxing. This is an insidious drain on our area’s resources, leaking out monthly into escrow in your mortgage payment. Allow my situation to represent the starkest comparison: I unfortunately own two homes, one here in WNY, and the other in Las Vegas, where I used to live, and became an unintentional landlord (anyone want to buy a house in vegas at 2005 prices?). The homes are worth roughly the same, have roughly the same monthly mortgage payment, and roughly the same percentage rate. In Buffalo, 55% of my monthly payment goes to escrow, for taxes and insurance. In Vegas, the figure is 15%. Or, in other words, only 45% of my payment is building me equity (or is tax deductible interest) in Buffalo, but 85% of my Vegas payment is useful. We crow about our low home prices here, but the average citizen builds wealth faster in their home (increasing the overall wealth of the community) in other parts of the country, bubble or not.

The question is not whether the taxes are high or low, but whether I am getting a good deal for my money. Don’t you suspect that we could be doing all that government does for a lot less cost? In Western New York, our personal income to housing cost ratio is high, which should be good for attracting outside businesses to the area. However, it’s bad for property taxes, since it takes a ridiculous percentage of home value to fund union salaries for Erie County workers. Funding an $80K/year corrections officer would be easier if the average house price in Buffalo was $300K, and not $68K.

Which is why our county tries to rely on the fickle sales tax to generate an above average portion of the total budget. I don’t mind balancing our books on the back of Canadian shoppers and spill-over tourism from Niagara Falls. But it leads to projection problems, irregular debt, a significant rainy day fund to bridge gaps, and, as is the policy debate de jour, conflict at budget time.

County Executive Chris Collins’ budget was destined to make everyone upset. Because it comes from his mouth and his office, it receives more acrimony than is usually present with a simple partisan divide. But it also fulfills campaign promises, which always sound better in theory than practice. He lays off workers, trims the library budget, shrinks the comptroller’s office, and, in the horror of horrors, nips $600K from the arts and culturals budget.

As Alan Bedenko points out, it is only because the county has control over such a small percentage of the budget that the conflict is so heated. Dogs always fight harder over the last scraps on the bone. This fight over $600K in county funding borders on the absurd in light of the following facts:

1) The Niagara River Greenway Commission controls $9M a year in funding for an asset utilized by far more tourists and locals (parks and green space along both lakes and Niagara River), but nary a peep is heard in the general public about its woeful record.

2) The Erie County IDA gives away more money in one session than the entire county arts budget combined, to help for-profit companies employing fewer workers. The only consistent criticism of this process is from local libertarians, but a tiny shrinking of the IDA budget could pay for all the arts we can handle.

3) The last county contract with CSEA, representing 4200 workers, gives a 15% pay raise, entrenches free healthcare for life for those hired before 2006, and mandates only a 15% employee contribution for new worker’s healthcare. Workers got $500 checks for each year since the last contract in 2006, as a sweetener. Cost to the county? $4.1M, or a rough doubling of culturals funding.

But the arts funding is receiving the press, and the criticism comes from two basic vantage points.

Alan correctly sums up a view held by a majority of Democrats that Collins is a giant jerk, and no matter what the funding decision is, they don’t want him to be the one that makes it. If the County legislature, or the advisory arts council, or my pet dog had made the decision to cut arts funding, that might be okay. But Collins is a dictator, and this is more proof. No matter the motivation, the Erie County charter does give the county executive far broader powers than are present at the federal level (for instance), so Collins is legally no more of a dictator than the law allows. The voting public will have a chance to remove Collins in the future if they don’t like the style. But it is a matter of style, not substance.

The other view is ably expressed by Colin Dabkowski and Jeff Simon, both of the Buffalo News. They make an argument for funding of the arts based purely on its merits. And while I agree with the sentiment (I like the arts too, and the groups that lost funding), I take issue with this unspoken premise: funding of a particular group in the past entitles that group to perpetual funding in the future, with the related subscript, cutting of county funding is an affront to these group’s right to exist.

Simon especially implies that Collins sees “no “reason for being”” for Shakespeare in the Park, because its county funding was cut. Since when is the county of Erie the sole or prime arbiter of an art group’s success, relevancy, vitality, or existence. It is one funding stream, and I hope, a small one. A community’s support of the arts, especially arts that exist to enrich that community and not cater to outsiders, should not exemplified in government funding. The county is not issuing, by royal decree, orders on which groups may exist or not. It is choosing which to fund, from county tax dollars, and nothing else.

Community based arts have a variety of funding streams: foundations, corporate sponsors, state and national grants, donors, and (one would hope, if a community asset) patrons. Even the Zoo sold wrist bands for a new elephant house. I question the impact and viability of any group that truly relies on county funding for its perpetuation. Despite talk to the contrary, Shakespeare in the Park will be fine, as it is a community asset. It will find enough revenue from the list at the start of this paragraph to continue. All 20 theaters that lost funding may not. But plenty of arts organizations exist now with no previous county funding (Sugar City, anyone), and I’m sure some of them are at least a bit indignant that they have grown and survived, and yet never got to feed from the trough at all.

Collins suffers from a lack of tact and communication. His desire to use arts funding to promote tourism is defensible and legitimate. Erie County is not the National Endowment of the Arts; the county executive has a right to an agenda, and to use taxpayer’s money as an investment as part of a policy strategy. It would nice if Collins himself would take the time to explain his motive and intent – he should borrow Mayor Brown’s podium more often.

Coming around full circle, let me offer two suggestions for arts funding that subscribe to a more “competent” government model, instead of simply bigger and smaller. If you are a supporter of the arts, please comment on my recommendations. Mssrs. Dabkowski and Simon are free to respond as well, if they are WNYMedia readers (which they should be):

1) Trim $400K from the big four receivers of funding (Zoo, Science Museum, BPO and Albright-Knox), and give it to the smaller groups instead. Can the Zoo do with $1.3M instead of $1.4M? This is the hatchet method, not the scalpel one, but it restores funding to the smaller groups, if they are so deserving and needy.

2) Preferably, turn arts funding on its head. If Collins were the entrepreneurial business leader that he says he is, he would not just be cutting spending, but changing how spending occurs. No matter that it’s the region’s top draw, how much bang for the buck are we getting from Zoo funding? HSBC employs a lot of workers, but $100K given to ten start up companies yields more dividends (in terms of jobs created and wealth maintained locally) than $1M given to HSBC. So keep the arts budget at $4M or $5M, but make it a competition. Which arts groups are ready to expand? Add a new space? Double the size of their program? Hire a new artistic director? On the cusp of breaking out? Invest the county’s money entrepreneurially, so you create the next Burchfield-Penney, not just maintain the old one. Help Shea’s absorb and retrofit the old Studio Arena Space. Give the Irish Classical Theater the resources it needs to double attendance in 5 years. And then move on. Don’t fund the same list every year. The IDA does not give money to GM or Kaleida simply for existing. It funds expansion and enhancement, and the county could do the same for the arts. “But art should exist for art’s sake, not just for tourism or tax revenue,” you say. I agree. I respect art for art’s sake  – when I was the ED of a small start-up arts center, we hosted a performance by a small choir that sings 500 year old chant. We received few attendees, but I was struck by the serenity of the choir members themselves; they were content that the music was alive, and the economic impact was so distant as to be forgotten. Such art should exist. But the county is not a foundation, nor the NEA, and could leverage its public dollars for maximum general impact.

Out Today: EC Budget 2011

1 Oct

Chris Collins will reveal the 2011 proposed Erie County Budget today.

Let’s see how he’ll further consolidate his dictatorship.