Legislators criticize budget

The Buffalo News
News Staff Reporter

County Executive Joel A. Giambra didn't pick up new support for a sales tax increase Friday, even after proposing a budget that means "life as we know it in Erie County comes to a stop."
Neither Republicans nor Democrats on the County Legislature are more likely to support his demand for a new penny on the sales tax, even to restore aid to the arts, orchestras, sheriff's road patrols, suburban parks, libraries and senior services.

He says without the income, county spending would fall to $940 million in 2005 and force the layoffs of 3,000 county employees - roughly 30 percent of the work force. More pink slips would go to 3,000 workers for the agencies and institutions relying on county tax dollars.

At a news conference Friday, Giambra called it the worst economic blow since the mighty furnaces of the region's steel plants finally went dark in the early 1980s.

Even so, Giambra's Republican side of the County Legislature offered no votes for a higher sales tax. The Democratic majority said it will try to craft a "responsible budget." And Assembly Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz, said, "What we need are partners, not finger-pointing and slash-and-burn budgets."

Doubts remain that Giambra has devised the best approach to close the $130 million deficit being forecast for next year. Lawmakers tell him he must share new sales tax income with other local governments in order to win Albany's approval.

"Any sales tax increase that we consider, some portion of it will have to be shared with the other municipalities and school districts in Erie County," said Albert DeBenedetti, D-Buffalo, chairman of the Legislature's Finance and Management Committee who says he wants a solution that couples higher property taxes with cuts in spending.

Giambra says there would be too little sales tax money to go around. To him, sharing it also perpetuates the many layers of government bureaucracy Erie County no longer needs. And it would give Buffalo dollars that would only be grabbed by the unionized workers who are suing to restore pay raises frozen by the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority.

Should more Erie County workers be laid off, Giambra asks, so Buffalo workers can make more money?

An emphatic Mayor Anthony M. Masiello said if county and state lawmakers raise the sales tax, the city should get its share.

"I'm going to fight like hell to make sure the residents of the City of Buffalo aren't treated like second-class citizens again," said Masiello, referring to the penny added to solve the county's financial crisis in 1985. The fortune generated by that penny over the years has always remained with county government.

"If I sound angry, it's because I am," Masiello said. "We've had to do all the tough stuff. We've been starved to death. Now we're being asked again to forsake our fair share. We won't do it any longer."

Giambra on Friday spoke of the contrast between a dark, unhappy county that would result from his "red budget," or a better, brighter Erie County that would result from a "green budget" nourished by a total sales tax of 9.25 cents on the dollar.

"Today I am filing the red budget," Giambra said, holding up a red computer disk containing data for the most austere budget in at least 20 years. "The budget that stops any discretionary spending, the budget that closes libraries, ends cultural funding, ends road patrols, ends county government as we know it."

He calls it a scorched-earth budget, and some earth under his own feet comes away charred. Laid off in 2005 would be every employee in his 16th floor suite, save himself, Deputy County Executive Carl A. Calabrese and a secretary.

Also gone would be Victor Getz, a senior aide and a magnet for criticism of Giambra. Getz, a boyhood friend, is paid $81,000 a year, has been given a county car for take-home use, and spends part of his work day driving Giambra to events and another part managing patronage appointments. Taxpayers often cite Getz as a reason why the county should further tighten its belt before they pay more.

Giambra said his "green budget" protects most services, though it still cuts 200 positions because the higher sales tax wouldn't take effect until March 1 and wouldn't raise all the money needed in its first year. "At least with the green budget we can keep this county as the regional service-delivery hub," he said.

While Giambra picked up no votes among legislators, the public was roused. Phones started jangling at the Erie County Legislature's office just minutes after television and radio stations closed their live coverage of Giambra's doomsday announcement.

I'm 87 years old, one woman said. How will I get to the senior center if there is no van service?

Am I going to lose my job? another caller asked.

Let me talk to Giambra, said a third.

Down the hall, the Legislature's majority leader recalled a line that sprung from the conservative columnist George Will: There's a reason why the Constitution starts with the legislative branch: The legislative branch starts with the people.

So Majority Leader Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, said lawmakers will hold public meetings around the county to learn which services people want to keep, enough so that they're willing to pay more taxes.

"We're disappointed that it has come to this either/or situation," she said, referring to Giambra's "political theater," the term her Democratic caucus applied to his remarks Friday.

Charles M. Swanick, R-Kenmore, who often sides with Giambra, said he won't back a higher sales tax without meaningful reform to the Medicaid program that saps the financial health of counties around New York. Without Medicaid reforms, Swanick says, the county will need new cash infusions every year.

"If you increase the sales tax now, in the following year you increase it again, with no end in sight," agreed Republican Minority Leader Michael A. Ranzenhofer of Clarence. "Taking it to its logical conclusion, you will never be able to pay enough money to keep up with escalating Medicaid costs. I need to see actual relief."



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