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County Legislature Finalizes Sales Tax Increase, Next Issue Is Electing a Chair

By Joyce Kryszak

Buffalo, NY – Erie County residents will pay a half penny more on the sales tax after January 14th. County lawmakers Tuesday took the final two votes needed to enact the controversial tax hike that will be in effect until November 2007. But there are still plenty of questions and work ahead for the 2006 Legislature.

State lawmakers still must vote in early January to finalize the process. The backwards voting process could be challenged. But state lawmakers and attorneys say the hike is official -- and legal. Still, county lawmakers are already faced with another challenge -- keeping the budget in balance. A roughly $2 million budget shortfall is anticipated due to the two week delay in implementing the increase. And a pending court case over $13 million for the Erie County Medical Center could deepen the hole. Legislature Chair George Holt says they are working on a settlement.

"The County Executive and Jim Hartman and I and the CEO (of Erie County Medical Center, Michael Young) have been communicating very diligently trying to come up with a solution for that," said Holt. "We haven't really put that together, as of this hour, but we are working very diligently to do that."

Still, some question Holt's ability to lead the county legislature through the budget mire and the four-year plan ahead. Two other lawmakers are mentioned as contenders for his position as chair. Newcomer, and former county lawmaker, Thomas Mazur is favored by some. And Democratic Majority Leader Lynn Marinelli says she wants the job. Marinelli believes she has the experience that will be needed for the full agenda ahead.

"I've been here. I understand what are challenges and, frankly, our opportunities are. And a lot of the agenda has to do with the reforms that are in there, the reforms that will be asked for," said Marinelli. "With having put in place the charter review and getting that furthered along, with those recommendations, with the Fiscal Stability of the County and the monitoring of it, with the consensus building -- and, frankly, to make sure we are providing the services that county government is here to provide."

Marinelli acknowledges, however, that the leadership post will be decided by her Democratic colleagues as the first order of business in the new year.