Erie County Legislature Approves Sales Tax Hike
By Joyce Kryszak
Buffalo, NY – Erie County lawmakers Tuesday averted a fiscal meltdown of county government by voting for a quarter cent increase in the sales tax.
The hike, which could go into effect as soon as July 1st, was approved for two and a half years. It will be used to pay for up to a $130 million deficit bond, to be expired in ten years. The bi-partisan vote was ten to five, with Republicans Steve McCarville and Democrat Tim Wroblewski providing the eleventh hour swing votes. McCarville says the alternative of insolvency was not an option for him.
"That would have been a very irresponsible move," said McCarville. "The business community has said to me over and over again over the last few days, 'please do not let this county go insolvent, the uproar that would cause, it's not healthy."
McCarville says it was a good first step. But four of his Republican colleagues disagreed. Barry Weinstein says it was a backwards approach.
"They attempted to solve the problem of the $118 million deficit, without dealing with the problem that got us there -- that's the mismanagement in county government," Weinstein said.
Lawmakers did unanimously pass a resolution that calls for the automatic deletion of any vacated county job. The move is expected to begin immediately downsizing county government though attrition. Any job vacated position would have to be re-authorized by the legislature -- that will include any positions the County Executive wants to fill. But Mike Summers, who is president of the Sheriff's union says this goes beyond politics.
"As jobs go down, it's goig to be less and less police officers on the street, and we're short as it is," said Summers.
Democratic Majority Leader Lynn Marinelli says the look of county government will have to change. The vote yesterday will not raise any additional revenue to address the $130 million deficit projected for next year. Marinelli says that's why she wanted a full penny increase.
"I was willing to bring in the revenues that this county needs to function," said Marinelli. "There are going to be certain functions that will no longer be in county government by the time we get to 2006."
County Executive Joel Giambra applauded the Legislature's actions, saying the gridlock is over. He said the ten lawmakers who approved the tax hike were brave and responsible.
Giambra says he is confident the move will satisfy the shaky bond markets. But he says the county should wait as long as possible to secure the deficit bond, so it doesn't borrow more than needed. The County Executive also said he wants to wait on more cuts.
"With the deficit borrowing, there's no need to do additional cuts right now," Giambra said. "We've made significant cuts. Any further cuts would be injurious to the public's health and safety in this county."
Giambra says he will work on a restructuring plan for 2006 to reduce costs further. He also said he wants to work with leaders of county employee unions to craft a plan that would result in less spending.