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Legislators get earful on Erie County budget for culturals, jails

A chart showing 2022 proposed Operating Budget Categories
Erie County

In just over two weeks, Erie County legislators vote on a budget for next year. Monday evening, they received hours of advice on how to change allocations for cultural organizations, equalize layoffs in county lockups and cut spending on those lockups.

County government has a lot of pieces and for the annual budget public hearing like last night, the most visible is the relatively small amount to support cultural organizations. Speakers from those agencies said they have been hit very hard by the lockdowns of the pandemic and need every dollar and more from the county to keep going into better times.

Explore & More had just opened less than a year before it was shut down and already had visitors from 1,900 zip codes. CEO Michelle Urbanczyk said the facility needs more county cash in hard times.

"To look at this budget and look at it equitably, we are positioned to receive $42,000. The next closest museum of our size and scope receives 20 times that amount in the allocation," Urbanczyk said. "I'm asking on behalf of our children, who, right now, is going to need this more than ever for brain development, to really reconsider and look at this budget."

A graph showing Total Operating Budget 2017-2022
Erie County
A pie chart showing Spending By Category
Erie County

Another big issue centered on what will be done about the Holding Center and the Correctional Facility, which are largely vacant but nearly fully staffed. Changes are in the works that are going to require a lot fewer guards.

There are two unions involved, CSEA and the Teamsters. The president of the CSEA local representing its officers, Marc Priore, told the hearing the county was being unfair to his members in planned layoffs.

"The facility where the deputy sheriff officers work is the one seeing a heavy reduction in inmates. So why then is nearly every Teamster subtraction simply the elimination of a vacancy?" Priore said. "I'm not sure if one single deputy sheriff is set to lose their job while, conversely, almost every single live body being laid off is a corrections officer that works at the facility where 75% of the jail population resides in Alden."

Erin Heaney from Stand Up For Racial Justice said the county has to cut staff and costs and release inmates.

"Again, you need to make it very clear which side you are on, especially in this moment in history and silence on this issue is completely not appropriate," Heaney said. "And so, again tonight, I am here to ask the members of this body to continue to divest from the Sheriff's Department, not just because it saves us money, but because you believe in the inherent dignity of all people."

There are millions of dollars at stake and a study is in the works on what to do about the two facilities, potentially merging them, with possibly most inmates moving to the much newer jail in Alden, where it would be hard for visitors because there is no public transit, while keeping a minimal transition to civilian life program in the Holding Center.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.