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Erie County Budget Crisis Top Local Story of 2004

By Mark Scott

Buffalo, NY – Red budget. Green budget. Libraries closing. No money for the arts. The Erie County budget crisis was the top local story of the year.

In 2003, it was Buffalo that was in crisis. A state control board was brought in to monitor the city's finances. In 2004, Erie County found itself in trouble. Early on, various county officials were warning of a huge deficit in 2005. And those projections turned out to be true when County Executive Joel Giambra released his 2005 proposed budget in early November. He actually released two plans -- the red budget and the green budget. Under the red budget, libraries would close. Sheriff's road patrols would end. And all funding for arts groups and human services agencies would be eliminated. Giambra said the red budget would end county government as we know it.

Giambra blamed out-of-control Medicaid spending for the county's fiscal problems. The green budget called for a penny increase in the sales tax, saving libraries, road patrols and the arts. But there were not enough votes in the Legislature to do that. For a time, it looked like the red budget would take effect by default. But shortly before a midnight deadline on December 8th, Giambra and the Legislature came to agreement on the extra penny and the 2005 budget was narrowly approved.

As the year drew to a close, there was still uncertainty. Three lawsuits were filed against the budget, claiming it wasn't legally approved. State Supreme Court Justice John Lane was expected to issue a ruling before the new year begins.

While the county dealt with a difficult budget, so, too, did the city of Buffalo. The Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority imposed a controversial wage freeze in April. Control board chair Thomas Baker said there was no other alternative for controlling costs.

Two weeks after the wage freeze was imposed, Mayor Anthony Masiello introduced a budget that proposed turning over all city parks to Erie County. After a month of difficult negotiations between the city and county, the transfer was agreed to.

By year's end, Buffalo's future looked a bit brighter when it finally was announced that Bass Pro would locate one of its biggest stores at the old Memorial Auditorium. One of the public officials who helped make that happen was Congressman Jack Quinn. He surprised many in late April when he announced he would not seek re-election to his 27th district seat.

Quinn's decision to retire quickly set off a scramble of possible successors. In the end, Democrat Brian Higgins narrowly defeated Republican Nancy Naples in an extremely close race. 2004, being a presidential election year, saw visits by Democratic candidates John Kerry and John Edwards prior to New York's March 2nd primary. And in April, President Bush came to Buffalo to address a gathering of first responders in the war on terrorism.

For the third straight year, the aftermath of the Adelphia scandal continued to make headlines. Adelphia founder John Rigas, two of his sons and a fourth former executive were tried on conspiracy, securities and bank fraud charges. Rigas and son Timothy were found guilty. But the jury reached only a partial verdict against his other son, Michael, and a mistrial was declared. Former Executive Michael Mulcahey was acquitted.

The year 2004 also saw the arrival of a new Catholic bishop for Buffalo. Bishop Edward Kmiec arrived from Nashville and immediately connected with local Catholics. Kmiec was formally installed as the Buffalo diocese's 13th bishop in late October.