We Here Highly Resolve
by Paul Wolf, ESQ.
An Analysis of the Erie County Legislature
In November every member of the Erie County Legislature is up for re-election. Now is an appropriate time to review what actually takes place in the Legislature. Every two weeks Legislators have an open floor to propose new ideas by filing resolutions and proposing local laws. The dictionary defines a legislature as a deliberative body that has the power to make, change or repeal laws. The analysis below shows that not much deliberation of substance takes place in the Erie County Legislature and very few laws are acted on. The number of local laws passed by the Erie County Legislature in 2014 was 3:
• Penalizing private land holders for allowing consumption of alcohol by minors other than dependents of the land holders, on said property, (Lynn Dixon).
• Amending the Erie County Charter in relation to the Erie County Community Coordinating Council on Children and Families, (Lynn Dixon).
• Relating to the leasing of approximately two acres of vacant land with an option to lease an additional one-acre parcel on the South Campus of Erie Community College to West Herr Toyota of Orchard Park, (John Mills).
In 2013, two laws were passed including the Banning of Hydraulic Fracturing on land owned by Erie County. In 2012, legislation Prohibiting Cyber-bulling in Erie County was passed.
While very few laws were enacted, legislators filed 680 Resolutions in 2014. The 680 resolutions consisted of the following:
• 412 Miscellaneous Resolutions honoring individuals and community organizations
• 169 Memorial Resolutions honoring individuals who have passed away
• 99 Legislator Resolutions which address an actual issue instead of honoring someone
John Mills the King of Honoring People
Sixty percent of the items filed by Legislators are Miscellaneous Resolutions that honor an individual or a community organization. An example of some Miscellaneous Resolutions filed in 2014:
Legislator Mills—Honoring the North Boston Fire Company on its Celebration of 110 Years of Service to the Community
Legislator Miller-Williams—Honoring Hispanics United of Buffalo on Their Annual Gala
Legislator Hardwick—Honoring Hizair Hair Salon on Being Named Business of the Year for 2014 by the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce
While such resolutions are nice gestures, is this really what County Legislators and their staff should be spending time on? Such resolutions are clearly about trolling for re-election votes. Researching, drafting, filing and forwarding each one of these resolutions takes the time of tax payer funded employees.
The King of Miscellaneous Resolutions for 2014 is legislator John Mills who filed 70 of them. Followed by:
2) Barbara Miller-Williams—65 Resolutions
3) Kevin Hardwick—49 Resolutions
4) Betty Jean Grant—41 Resolutions
5) Joe Lorigo & Ted Morton—37 Resolutions
6) Ed Rath & Lynn Dixon—36 Resolutions
7) Patrick Burke—26 Resolutions
8) Tom Loughran—25 Resolutions
9) Peter Savage—16 Resolutions
Lynn Dixon the Queen of Honoring the Dead
Not missing a chance to troll for votes and make friends, legislators adjourn their meetings by adopting resolutions in memory of individuals that passed away. Twenty five percent of the items coming before the Legislature are Resolutions honoring deceased individuals. Staff members must spend time on the important function of combing through obituaries and writing up documents to remind family members at the time of their grief that their County Legislator truly cares.
The Queen of Memorial Resolutions in 2014 was Legislator Lynn Dixon who recognized 36 deceased individuals, followed by:
2) Kevin Hardwick—34
3) Ed Rath & Ted Morton—24
4) Joe Lorigo—13
5) Betty Jean Grant—12
6) Barbara Miller Williams—9
7) Peter Savage—7
8) Mills, Burke & Loughran—3
Once again a nice gesture which families may appreciate, but is this what taxpayer funded legislators and staff should be spending their time on?
John Mills Filed the Most Substantive Items
Legislator resolutions are focused on an issue rather than honoring an individual or organization. Out of the 680 resolutions filed in 2014, only 99 resolutions fell in this category, (15 percent of all resolutions filed). Of these resolutions 26 expressed support/opposition to legislation pending in Albany, City of Buffalo or support in general for another organizations efforts, 36 addressed routine county issues such as reorganizing staff, board appointments, setting public hearings, transferring surplus property. Very few resolutions proposed new ideas or innovative approaches to improve the operation of county government.
Most likely Legislator Mills is number one in this category due to his position as Chair of the Legislature. The same may be true for Legislator Joseph Lorigo being in second place who serves as the Majority Leader.
The ranking for filing substantive items is as follows:
Betty Jean Grant—10
Ed Rath, Peter Savage, Kevin Hardwick—4
I don’t think that there is enough county related work for legislators so they create busy work by introducing Resolutions that troll for votes by honoring people and symbolically call upon other levels of government to do something.
The County Budget
In addition to acting on local laws a big responsibility of the County Legislature is to approve a County budget. While passing a budget is important, the reality is that County officials have very little say over the County budget as 90 percent of the budget is mandated by the state and federal government.
The total county budget is about $1.4 billion of which county officials have a say over only $120 million. The legislature’s amendments to the county executives proposed budget the past three years were:
2014—$2.1 million cut, reducing the county tax rate from $5.03 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $4.99.
2013—$467,239 was shifted to cover the cost of additional jobs at the Erie County Board of Elections and increased aid to cultural agencies.
In 2012 the legislature changed $8.5 million of the county executive’s proposed budget.
The legislature the past few years has typically changed less than one percent of the County Executive’s proposed budget.
Can We Have Issue Focused Elections?
We have eleven County Legislators who serve four year terms. Eight members earn $42,500 per year, the Majority and Minority Leader earn $47,500 and the Chair Person earns $52,500.
Sadly not every incumbent is being challenged for the office they hold. For the positions that are being contested there needs to be opportunities for discussions and debates to take place.
Some questions that should be asked of candidates:
• When 90 percent of the County $1.4 billion budget is state/federal mandated and County officials have control over a small portion, do we really need County government? Especially since the Legislature typically changes less than one percent of the County Executive’s proposed budget.
• When only 15 percent of the resolutions filed by legislators deal with substantive items, do we really need County government?
• Do you support ending the practice of legislative resolutions that honor people and community organizations?
• Do you support ending the practice of adjourning legislative meetings in honor of individuals that have passed away?
• Do you support term limits for all County elected positions?
• Do you support ethics reform banning government officials for accepting any gifts regardless of the dollar amount?
• Do you support having an independent commission draw legislative district lines?
• Do you support public financing of elections as a way to reduce the impact of special interest money in elections?
Paul Wolf, is an attorney and the Founder of the Center For Reinventing Government, www.reinventinggov.orgblog comments powered by Disqus
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