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Erie County Legislature Falls One Vote Short in Sales Tax Debacle

By Joyce Kryszak

Buffalo, NY – The never-ending Erie County budget saga will finally end Friday -- for better or worse. After another failed exercise in governing Thursday, lawmakers will return sometime Friday to decide on the proposed hike in the sales tax.

For another long afternoon Thursday, concerned county residents and employees sat in the wings of the legislative chambers. They paced, or killed time reading books, and passed out signs saying "show some respect." They didn't get any.

Lawmakers emerged from another round of secret meetings only to recess with nothing again resolved. The unofficial vote before recess was called -- nine to six -- one vote short of a one penny tax hike. As he promised, Democrat Al DeBenedetti changed his vote to no when reforms fell through.

"I'm not really prepared to go into details, just to say we didn't make satisfactory progress," DeBenedetti said.

Republican Barry Weinstein also voted no. And he's looking for more than DeBenedetti. Weinstein wants the revenue sharing plan taken off the table. And he wants at least $30 million in cuts. He says its the only responsible thing to do.

"This is our one chance to force meaningful reform in county government," Weinstein said. "If we fail now, then it's business as usual. That is not good for anyone in Erie County."

Erie County Executive Joel Giambra -- the author of the red budget -- wasn't available for comment. But Erie County Budget Director Joseph Passafiume says the stakes are too high. He says if the tax doesn't pass Friday, lawmakers will have to wait until June 1st to try again. And that means $32 million less to run county government.

"Consequently, we are looking at a significant reduction in our workforce and the potential for the month of March of not having sufficient cash to pay our people," Passafiume said.

Mike Bogulski is one of those people. And as president of CSEA Local 815, he represents a lot of those other people who might get laid off -- or who might not get a pay check. Bogulski says the incompetence is stunning.

"I'm perplexed," Bogulski said. "I just can't believe the wheels of government are this weak. It's totally out of control."

County Comptroller Nancy Naples echoed that thought in a statement issued Thursday night. She says the political posturing must stop -- and the hard decisions must be made.

Lawmakers meet later Friday to put that challenge to one final test.