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Consolidation of school and fire districts highlighted in State of the County

Mike Desmond

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz says the county is doing pretty well: jobs are up and county agencies are showing how well they can help members of the public. However, delivering his annual State of the Countyaddress Thursday, he said more needs to be done.

Poloncarz delivered the annual message to a packed house at the Buffalo Science Museum, the recent recipient of half-a-million in county dollars for renovation and re-opening with handicapped access of the rooftop observatory.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

From the county's efforts on opioids to a new computer system that better coordinates police protection, Poloncarz said government can be the solution to many problems.

"Our team has since developed software that can identify the closest available police car in the area serviced by both the Erie County Sheriff's Office and the New York State Police," he said. "With this advanced software, police dispatchers can instantly identify which car is closest to respond, regardless of whether it's an a sheriff's deputy or a New York State Trooper."

Poloncarz said the software is in use in much of the county and it will likely cover all of the county by the end of this year.

He said jobs are up, chestnut trees are going into Chestnut Ridge Park, and health is better because of the county's efforts.

The county executive took stands on some contentious issues, pointing the finger at Washington for not pushing hard enough against guns. The Democrat also noted the county will spend $23 million this year on roads and bridges, but Washington is making future construction more difficult.

"Unfortunately, the recent proposal issued by the Trump Administration will not result in more road and bridge work in Erie County. Instead, less will get done," Poloncarz said. "In case you do not know it, the Trump plan flips the highway funding formula around. Today, the federal government pays about 80 percent of a federally funded project. Under the Trump plan and after 2020, it would be 20 percent."

Locally, Poloncarz attacked school and fire districts for not making enough effort to cut operating costs, citing Cheektowaga's shrinking population and the number of school districts.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

"Between 2000 and 2010, Cheektowaga saw a drop of children aged 17 and under by nearly 15 percent, and that trend has grown throughout this decade as well," he said. "So why is the population of Cheektowaga, as it gets substantially smaller - meaning the tax base and the number of children attending its schools gets smaller - why do they still have five major school districts?"

The county executive said he will be producing a report soon on what the public gets for its tax dollars from school and fire districts. He wants Albany to help force cost cutting.

County Legislator John Bruso, who serves much of Cheektowaga, said he also was interested in the costs of school districts and the need for control when it is such a percentage of tax bills.

"It absolutely sounds crazy to it and the 36 percent of your tax dollars is where what we can control, we certainly have to get the other people on board."

State Assemblymember Monica Wallace, who serves Cheektowaga and Lancaster, said schools do try to cut costs. The Democrat wants to know more about the county executive's planned report on spending in schools and fire districts.

"We should always be talking about ways to reduce the taxpayer burden and I know that my school superintendents are, in fact, doing that," Wallace said. "I look forward to the county executive's report to see exactly where he has identified ways to further share services."

However, County Legislature Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo was critical of Poloncarz for using county resources for these studies.

"He makes a point that those school districts and other special districts are a big problem when it comes to our tax burden here in Western New York, and I applaud him for bringing that to people's attention," the West Seneca Republican said. "My issue is with diverting county resources to research it and make a push for doing something about changing it when he consistently comes to the Legislature asking us to add more jobs to help his administration."

Poloncarz congratulated the Legislature for its new county ethics law, but did not mention that Lorigo wrote that law.

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.