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Erie County Legislature adopts $1.8 billion 2022 budget, despite disagreeing over tax levy increase

Erie County Legislature Republicans and Democrats
Tom Dinki
/
WBFO News
Erie County Legislator Christopher Greene, a Republican, speaks about the county budget with Majority Leader April Baskin, a Democrat, amid a recess during a legislative session Dec. 2. 2021.

The Erie County Legislature adopted the 2022 budget on Thursday, but only after a heated disagreement over the plan’s property tax levy and whether Democrats misled Republicans about their intentions to raise it.

Seven Democrats voted in favor and four Republican Caucus members voted against the $1.8 billion plan, which includes tens of millions of dollars for capital projects and responding to COVID-19, as well as funding for a new Office of Health Equity.

However, all of the discussion Thursday centered on the budget’s $320 million tax levy, a 2.5% increase from this year.

Although the budget includes a property tax rate reduction to $4.33 per $1,000 of assessed value, the county’s lowest property tax rate since 1960, Republicans also wanted a reduction in the tax levy, the overall amount of tax dollars collected. They had proposed a tax levy of about $289 million, about an 8% reduction from this year.

Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, a Conservative Party member, argued now was the time to reduce the levy, given that the county has an expected $170 million surplus, amid federal COVID relief funds and online sales tax revenue.

“We have an obligation, given the situation that we're in with the unprecedented amount of money that the county is currently sitting on and expecting,” he told his fellow legislators. “If there was ever a year to lower the county tax levy, 2022 is the year.”

Simply reducing the tax rate wasn’t enough to provide relief to taxpayers, Lorigo added. Even with a tax rate reduction, some taxpayers might still see a higher tax bill year to year if their property value assessment increases.

“The only way to provide true and real tax relief for every Erie County resident is through a levy reduction,” Lorigo said.

However, Democrats opposed reducing the levy and possibly squandering what could be reserves for future years.

They noted the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and the Omicron variant, and that COVID relief funds are not a sustainable source of revenue. They also argued that the new online sales tax revenue is really just making up for the years in which the county could not collect that revenue. A 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision against online retailer Wayfair opened the door for counties to collect taxes on online sales.

Legislator Kevin Hardwick, a Democrat who will become county comptroller next month, said the last significant cut in the levy led to the county’s red-and-green budget crisis of the mid-2000s.

“The road to red-and-green budget began in happier times,” he said, “but those decisions in those happier times resulted in the pain, the severe pain felt by everybody in Erie County. We cannot let history repeat itself.”

Thursday’s session also demonstrated the confusion and disconnect between the two parties as they negotiated the budget, as Republicans accused Democrats of misleading them about their intention to raise the levy.

They said they left conversations with Majority Leader April Baskin a couple weeks ago believing she had agreed to reduce the levy by $1.5 million, a fraction of what they had asked for but still a favorable offer.

“I said, ‘It's not what we want, but $1.5 [million] is palpable,” said Republican Legislator Christopher Greene.

However, Baskin was actually offering a $1.5 million reduction from County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s proposed $321 million tax levy, not this year’s $312 million tax levy. Democrats’ amended $320 million tax levy still represented about a $7 million increase from this year.

“Now that could best be described as deceptive, at best,” Greene said.

Baskin pushed back against the allegation she misled Republican legislators. She said it’s the “culture” of the legislature to, when discussing a tax levy reduction, be referring to a reduction in the county executive’s proposed levy, not a reduction from the current year’s levy.

“There was no deception. There was no trickery,” she said. “There was just simply operating in the fashion in which this body has always done.”

At one point during the session, Baskin called a five-minute recess after Lorigo asked for more time to convince Democrats to delay the budget vote and work out a tax levy reduction.

After the five minutes was up, Lorigo said “nobody came to talk to me.”

“I still remain committed to trying to do everything we can to lower the levy and I'd be more than happy to work with anyone to do so. Nobody came and said there was an appetite for that,” he said.

Republican Legislator John Mills, the most veteran member of the body, said the legislature had become a “toxic environment.”

“I don't want to look like those crazies in Washington, semi-crazies in the state,” he said. “I’m just appalled we can’t make this an 11-0 vote.”

Following the 7-4 vote, Poloncarz released a statement thanking his fellow Democrats for approving the budget.

“I would like to thank the Legislature majority caucus, who understood the opportunity we had this year to accelerate our comeback by delivering a meaningful property tax rate cut and still investing wisely in programs that will create a better, healthier and more prosperous Erie County in the future,” he said.

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