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More details of $123M RENEW Plan unveiled; legislators debate timeline

WBFO file photo
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz unveiled the county's RENEW plan last week. It must now be approved by the legislature.

Last week, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz unveiled plans for how $123 million from the American Rescue Plan will be used. Now it is in the hands of the county legislature. There was a lot of debate about it this week, and a difference in opinion on how quickly they should approve the spending.

Erie County’s RENEW plan, which stands for "Reinvest in Erie's Neighborhoods & Employ our Workforce," features a wide variety of short term and long term investments.

The plan includes bonuses, called premium pay, for county employees who worked in person at the start of the pandemic, $14.3 million for county parks, and $31.3 million for sewer and water systems. As the legislature debates this, some feel the county should take their time in making their decision.

"Why the rush? I'm all for investing in our assets. I'm all for it, you know, improving things that need it. But taking a once in a lifetime opportunity and wasting it on a government recovery plan, wrapped up in patronage projects in certain districts seems short sighted," said Legislator Joe Lorigo in a Thursday legislature meeting.

Lorigo who expressed concerns with several aspects of the plan, including some of the parks funding. He shared his thoughts on projects that would create additional expenses in the future.

Some legislators, such as April Baskin, sees the funding as something they should evaluate, but not sit on. She also shared that she wants to see the legislature come together to work through any concerns regarding the plan, including outside of regular sessions.

"I want us to do the right thing. I want us to work together, I don't want us to look at 'what my district got versus what another legislators' district got', I want us to govern responsibly," said Baskin.

Ultimately, The county has until the end of 2024 to encumber the funds. One aspect of the plan that immediately came up in discussion was the bonus for county employees.

The American Rescue Plan (ARP) defines four areas where funding can be used, including "responding to COVID-19 and its economic effects; provide premium pay to essential workers; restore lost revenue; and water, sewer and broadband infrastructure projects," according to a memorandum from the county executive to the legislature.

The RENEW plan includes a proposal to give some county employees premium pay for hours worked in person during the pandemic between March 16 and June 26, 2020. The employees would be retroactively paid an additional five dollars for every hour they worked.

Legislator Kevin Hardwick expressed his concerns with how county employees who worked then, and are now retired, might not be compensated as part of the program.

“My understanding is that the premium pay is to show our gratitude for their coming in at a time when we didn't know what was going on. And it was literally above and beyond the call of duty," said Hardwick.

Timothy Hogues, the commissioner of personnel for Erie County, says not paying newly-enacted premiums to former employees falls in line with past practices of the county.

"If individuals have separated from county employment, those individuals do not realize the benefits of those types of pay, whether it be shift premium or those types of stuff," said Hogues.

The premium pay, if approved, will be limited to current county employees making less than $116,400, and will be capped according to federal guidelines.

You can view Poloncarz's full proposal here:

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.