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Erie County Legislature approves 2021 budget in partisan-line vote

Erie County

The Erie County Legislature approved County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s proposed 2021 budget Thursday with some amendments from the Democratic majority caucus. WBFO’s Kyle Mackie reports on the partisan-line 7-4 vote.

Both Republican and Democratic Erie County legislators said in a virtual meeting Thursday that budgeting for 2021 has been the most difficult financial challenge for the county since the budget crisis of 2004-2005. Still, Democratic Chairwoman April Baskin said she feels good about the county’s financial management during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When you look back on what we did fiscally this year and when you look at how we are wrapping up this year with this budget and trying our absolute very best, under the most relentless circumstances, to take care of every resident in every district, as best as we can, in an equitable way, I am so so proud to chair this body and to be signing on to this amendment package, to be a leader in Erie County and to work with you all,” Baskin said.

Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo viewed the budget process quite differently.

“We all recognize what a difficult time we’re living in and what a difficult budget this has been,” Lorigo said. “We’re living in a world of uncertainty as it comes to sales tax revenue [and] expenses for COVID-19 relief next year and we as a legislature had an opportunity to work together on a budget that would have been fair and acceptable to all, and that didn’t happen.”

Lorigo and other minority caucus members argued that the budget should provide more assistance to small businesses, evenly divided across the county. They also proposed dipping further into the county’s fund balance to provide that support.

“The fund balance in many ways is considered a rainy day fund. And ladies and gentlemen, if it isn’t raining right now, when on earth is it raining in Erie County?” Legislator Edward Rath posed to his colleagues. “We need to push that money, that tax money, that is now in the pockets of Erie County, back into the pockets of the residents across all four corners of Erie County.”

Democratic caucus members responded that the county already provided $19 million of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds to small businesses this year. The adopted budget instead prioritizes aiding governmental and community groups that may not have been eligible for special federal assistance programs like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

The 2021 budget will also invest $2.1 million in urban initiatives to benefit the cities of Lackawanna, Tonawanda and Buffalo. That’s in line with the legislature’s new focus on eliminating historic disparities between the level of county investment in suburban and rural areas compared to cities, where the majority of Erie County residents of color live, according to Legislator Howard Johnson.

“We all know that Erie County is one of the most segregated places in the U.S. and systemic racism rules the day here,” said Johnson, who represents most of Buffalo. “This budget just levels the playing field so all residents of Erie County can benefit.”

Legislator Kevin Hardwick, who represents the City of Tonawanda and Grand Island, echoed Johnson’s point.

“The cities have gotten the short end of the stick for years from the county. We city dwellers pay the same taxes yet we don’t receive the same packages of services because we’re cities,” Hardwick said. “These urban initiatives attempt to make up for that inequity.”

Another grievance from the four minority legislators was that the budget will result in the loss of 19 staff positions in the Erie County Sheriff’s Department. Democratic legislators said those cuts were proposed by the department itself during a difficult budget process.

Republican and Democratic legislators also disagreed on the budget’s impact on taxes. Lorigo said “more taxes are being levied in 2021 than have ever been levied in the history of Erie County,” and that the minority caucus’ amendment proposal would have “eliminated that.” However, several Democratic legislators emphasized that the county’s property tax rate will be cut to its lowest rate since 2005 ($4.43 per thousand dollars of assessed value compared to $4.71 in 2020) while keeping Erie County under the New York State Tax Cap.

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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