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The County Budget Crisis

About 4pm on Tuesday, an Erie County employee said he’d just heard loud and angry voices from behind a closed door to one of the Erie County Legislature’s back rooms as he passed by. This man—who didn’t want to be identified—thought he recognized Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz’s voice, among several others, and the conversation snatch he heard didn’t sound polite. It was easy by then to find this believable and understandable. By that time, two hours after convening, the 15 county legislators had still taken no vote, except to adjourn twice. And for several days, there had been intense behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

The legislature met Tuesday to vote on overriding County Executive Chris Collins’ vetoes of their changes to his $1.2 billion proposed budget, one which sharply reduced spending for a number of programs and purposes. Most prominent among these were the public library system (by $4 million, out of $22 million), total exclusion of 45 arts and cultural organizations from the budget, and a 36 percent cut in Poloncarz’s budget, including the slicing out of six of eight auditors, as well as eight other job eliminations. Collins had groused to news media over several days that, as far as he could tell, the auditors didn’t do much anyway. Another widespread local opinion was that they had been doing too much that Collins didn’t like, including, under the comptroller’s direction, finding that the county executive’s budget was importantly inaccurate and based on severely flawed assumptions. (Several attempts over the last week to obtain an interview with someone from Collins’ office were unsuccessful.) The nine-member Democratic majority cut $8.1 million from Collins’ budget and restored much of the eliminated funding. Their budget was actually $100,000 less than his.

Much of the several-hours-long delay in voting Tuesday was apparently devoted to private, last-ditch efforts to turn at least one of the six Republican legislators from their support of Collins’ budget and vetoes of the nine Democrats’ $8.1 million of eliminated monies. They needed at least 10 votes to override.

Early Tuesday, they achieved one victory that many of them thought gave them important power to leverage at least one Republican vote. New York State Supreme Court Justice Joseph R. Glownia issued a temporary restraining order against Collins, prohibiting him from declaring the Democrats’ cuts “null and void,” as Collins had in the veto message he sent the legislature Tuesday. Glownia, in effect, reminded the county executive he had no authority under the county’s charter to annul such cuts.

Armed with this order, the Democrats spent much of Tuesday seeking that one elusive Republican. Efforts reportedly mostly targeted Kevin Hardwick (Kenmore, Tonawanda). A member of the Central Library’s staff told Artvoice that he believed Poloncarz had been appealing to Hardwick over the weekend, and Loughran had a meeting with him Monday morning. Hardwick voted for the entire package of Democratic amendments two weeks ago, the only Republican to do so.

Libraries Still in Danger

“What’s the new rationale now?” Erie County legislator and Community Enrichment Committee chair Thomas Loughran (Amherst) asked Monday during a Democratic news conference. He was alluding to Buffalo and Erie County Library director Bridgett Quinn Carey’s response a few days earlier when the legislature’s Democrats had restored $4 million to the libraries’ budget after County Executive Chris Collins had reduced the library allocation by the same amount. She had said, Loughran noted, that this would “stabilize” the library system.

Over the weekend, Collins had abruptly added back $3 million of the money he removed, and Quinn Carey, according to the Buffalo News, responded that this would “at least ensure…that people are going to have access to their libraries.” Loughran was asking, what kind of access?

Even had the libraries got the $4 million, there would have been cutting and scrimping. In the first place, Collins had refused to spend almost $800,000 in one-shot state funding and there were other major reductions in state aid, at the same time such expenses as utilities and pension accounts had been increasing. Before Collins’ $4 million reduction, people at the libraries say, there might have had to be 50-60 part- and full-time staffers let go.

Tim Galvin, head of the librarians’ union and manager of the inter-library loan program, estimates that with only $3 million restored, the job losses could mount to 75, “a significant blood-letting.” The system wouldn’t need to go to its board-mandated triage plan, with sharply reduced hours at most branches, but, sources say, the partial restoration will certainly lead to patrons experiencing restrictions in library hours, service and access to material. Already, Galvin says, some full-time staffers are bidding for part-time jobs.

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Alas, there was to be no Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-Claude Rains or Damascus Road moment for Hardwick on Tuesday. In fact, he’d already announced his intention to stand fast with Collins and his Republican colleagues on Saturday, two full days before the county executive’s veto message. Tuesday evening, during the voting, Loughran reminded Hardwick that the latter had told him the day before that he was still searching for a legal basis on which to cast his votes. What more than Glownia’s order did Hardwick need, asked Loughran? But Hardwick said the legal opinions he’d obtained were “all over the place,” and he couldn’t risk the property tax increase Collins kept insisting was in the offing if the Democrats’ restorations were sustained.

It’s unlikely that Hardwick intended to sustain his own votes for the restorations, since neither on Saturday nor Tuesday evening did he have a substantive argument from the county executive about those taxes. In his veto message, Collins only repeated the assertion, rather than documenting it.

The Republicans evidently believed they’d cleared themselves some wriggle room by pressuring Collins to restore $3 million to the libraries and by an 11th-hour (4:30pm on Tuesday) Hail Mary play.

At a hastily assembled press conference, they announced that only several hours earlier they’d got Collins to agree to release $100,000 to match $400,000 from the Oishei Foundation, the total to be devoted to the 45 excluded “culturals.” (The Democrats provided $1.2 million.)

Somewhat perversely, Buffalo News columnist Donn Esmonde Wednesday called this a “victory” for these groups, but this wasn’t the assessment of their representatives, many of whom sat silently for hours during Tuesday’s events. The Theatre of Youth’s Meg Quinn, for example, angrily noted that Collins had summarily rejected a similar, more generous foundation offer two months ago. She and several others said they were already leveraging monies from private foundations and other private sector entities, and that this “new” money might only be from the funding they would have received from such sources anyway. “It’s a political shell game,” she said. And during the voting, Democrat Lynn Marinelli turned to the groups’ representatives and asked them to nod silently if this was true. (They did.) Afterward, Irish Classical Theatre director Vincent O’Neill said this was just more of Collins’ “machinations,” adding, “It’s the same kind of thing he’s doing to the comptroller’s office.”

As the voting proceeded with oppressive, metronymic regularity—every vote 9-6—the Republicans seemed to be suffering from lockjaw as well as lockstep: No one but Hardwick spoke, and he only briefly.

There were plenty of other, often overlooked budget victims: county nurses, a pathologist for the medical examiner, 28 people in the probation department, and many more.

On Monday after a budget hearing, Cheektowaga Democrat Thomas Mazur quipped to Shakespeare in the Park’s Saul Elkins that every legislature should have a poet and a philosopher. Elkins didn’t give the obvious response: The Republicans would probably begin by deleting the positions.

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