Today, I had a chat with Mark Cornell, director of policy and communications in the office of Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. He was responding to my recent column about the county executive's proposed 2013 budget, which includes increased arts and cultural funding but also includes a 3.4 percent property tax increase.
Cornell took issue with my assertion that Poloncarz tied the tax increase to arts, culture and libraries as opposed to subsidies to the Buffalo Bills, renegotiating expensive employee contracts or the Erie County Water Authority's continued use as a patronage trough.
I intended the statement as a general illustration of places that might merit more financial scrutiny and conversation rather than a specific suggestion about how to solve the $8 million budget gap that Poloncarz is filling with increased tax revenue. But Cornell made plenty of good points, so I wanted to give him a chance to respond:
On the Bills subsidies:
"The Bills subsidies are on that list of non-mandated county costs, so technically speaking is that discretionary? Yes, but the discretion was made 15 years ago. The money for the Bills operating subsidy for 2013 is the last year of the prior lease agreement that was negotiated by the Gorski administration. the money might as well be considered a mandate," he said. He also added that the 2013 Erie County subsidy for the Bills is $4.1 million, about $1 million less than the proposed subsidy for cultural organizations.
On employee contracts:
"As far as unwillingness? We've been ready, willing and able. And actually, in spite of this [CSEA] contract failing to be approved, we're moving on and negotiating with other employee unions. We agree with most folks that the fact that many of these contracts have not been renegotiated in four, five, six years, is unsustainable," he said. He added that savings from renegotiating health care provisions in employee contracts would not materialize for many years, while savings from pension re-negotiations would not take effect for another 30 years. That means that renegotiating contracts, while necessary, wouldn't have any impact on county budgets in the immediate future.
On Water Authority patronage:
"The Water Authority is not part of Erie County government... Through New York State, it's technically autonomous. Not a single dollar in the county's property tax levy goes to the Water Authority for anything that they do or don't do. The county has no control over hiring, firing, how they use their budget, how they don't use their budget. It's autonomous in the same way that the [Industrial Development Agencies] are autonomous," he said.
Cornell also explained that the tax increase was necessitated by unanticipated increases in mandated services like Medicaid, as well as property assessments that actually declined instead of growing at their predicted rate. He stressed, as the county executive has done, that discretionary spending only accounts for about 10 percent, or $102 million, of the county's $1.385 billion budget.
And finally, he made a pertinent suggestion to the cultural community of Erie County, whose members turned out in droves during last year's funding crisis.
"I think the benefit that they have this year is that they're looking from the inside out rather than the outside in," he said. But, he added, "they still need to participate in the public forums that will take place on the budget and say why they deserve to have to have this funding."
taggedArt | Theater