District 10 Legislator

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Kevin Hardwick - District 10

Getting finances in order will show if lessons have been learned

All the signs are there. Sales tax revenue took a severe drop recently due to the lethargic economy. The growth in Erie County's real property values was not as great as anticipated. The outlook for aid from New York State and the federal government is uncertain at best. Yes, all the elements are converging for another County fiscal crisis.

Although Erie County by itself can do little to change the national economy, we can control much of our own destiny. To do so, we must react differently than County officials did in the red/green budget debacle of 2004-2005. Indeed, we must demonstrate that we have learned the lessons of that shameful period in our community's history.

Lesson number one is that symbolism matters. In 2004 the then county executive urged legislators to raise the county's sales tax by one percent to avoid his dreaded red budget that was supposedly pared to the bone. He probably would have succeeded had word not leaked out that he had a friend making $80,000 per year as his driver. The media then delved into his "friends and family plan" and all people could talk about was the pork and patronage in county government. When asked by a reporter whether he would cut his own pay, the county executive replied that such a cut would be nothing more than symbolism. Perhaps. But demonstrating a willingness to absorb some of the pain himself would have gone a long way. I am convinced that the current county executive will not repeat this mistake.

Lesson two is that cuts, should they be necessary, must be well planned. The federal and state governments heavily subsidized some of the positions that were eliminated in 2005. Cutting them, therefore, failed to reduce the amount of money the county needed to raise through local property taxes. Other positions, such as welfare fraud investigators, more than paid for themselves. Our leaders also failed to consider that existing union contracts required that many of the people terminated be compensated for accumulated vacation and compensatory time. So in order to cut a dollar from the budget, they needed to cut well more than a dollar in salary.

The most important lesson, though, is that leaders need to act like adults and work together for the good of our community. One of the sorriest aspects of the Red/Green Budget era was the spectacle of the county suing itself, as officials initiated lawsuits against one another. They did this not once, but over and over again. Each time, the taxpayers footed the bill for both sides of the suit. The only winners were the lawyers.

My hope is that sales tax revenues will rebound and severe cuts will prove unnecessary. If this does not occur, however, we would be wise to heed the lessons of the last county fiscal crisis.

Do you have a comment about the budget process? Please call my office at 873-3438 or e-mail Kevin.hardwick@erie.gov.

- Printed Aug. 11, 2010 in the Ken-Ton Bee Newspaper

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