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Hundreds Attend First Public Hearing on "Red" Budget

By Joyce Kryszak

Buffalo, NY – Hundreds of residents turned out for the first public hearing on the proposed Erie County budget in Lancaster last night. Everyone was against services being eliminated. And most were against taxes being raises to restore them. But no one seemed to have a solution for fixing the county's projected $130 million dollar budget hole.

It was standing room only in the packed Lancaster Middle School auditorium. But one by one, residents waited patiently for their three minutes at the microphone. Libraries were a hot topic. For some, such as Middle Eastern immigrant Ismet Mamnoon and her children, libraries are a sacred expression of democracy.

"They cannot imagine a world where libraries don't exist," Mamnoon said. "That's the kind of world I grew up in. We did not have public libraries when I was a child. To me, this is one of the most wonderful gifts that this country has given us."

Unimaginable was one of the kinder words used. Many said the proposed cuts were detestable, deplorable, absurd and disgusting. Whether it was about saving human services agencies, probation officers or the zoo, emotions ran high. Nancy Johnston says residents deserve better.

"If we have to do without culturals, the zoo being my personal fetish, then the county should do without free cars, free gas, free phones, free furniture and all the other perks," Johnston said.

Some called on County Executive Joel Giambra to defend his own spending. Some even called for his ouster. And people demanded reforms -- all the way from the state to the county level. Al Martin says lawmakers should start by getting rid of hundreds of county patronage jobs.

"This is a must do before there's a tax increase," Martin said. "Without that reform, corrupt business as usual will remain the norm for Erie County government."

Most, reluctantly, said they would support some kind of new tax, rather than lose services. Younger county residents said higher taxes and fewer services make it tough for them to stay. Still, others firmly denounced any form of new tax to fix the budget mess. Fred Specht sympathized with the choices legislators face. "You didn't ask for this mess, I know," Specht said. "But you're going to have to solve it. Raising taxes is not one of my options."

Virtually everyone agreed that the only option is for lawmakers to come together to find a solution.