Balanced proposal includes 6% reduction of property tax rate, reduction of community college chargebacks while staying beneath state tax cap
Stronger than expected sales tax revenue helps balanced proposal bridge gap, maintain funding for libraries, arts & culturals; funding included for ongoing COVID-19 response
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz was joined Thursday by Director of the Erie County Office of Budget and Management Robert Keating to present his fiscal year 2021 proposed Erie County budget to the Erie County Legislature, acknowledging the fiscal pressures put on by the COVID-19 pandemic and outlining measures designed to bridge a resulting initial budget gap of nearly $82 million.
In addition to budgeting for ongoing COVID-19 response, the proposed budget would also provide a 6% property tax rate reduction, lowering that rate from $4.71 per $1,000 of assessed value for 2020 to $4.43 in 2021, and bringing that rate to its lowest since 2005 while keeping Erie County under the New York state tax cap. Even with the 28-cent reduction in the property tax rate for the 2021 budget, the county will benefit from $7 million of additional 2021 revenue as a result of a robust real-estate market that continues to see property values increase significantly.
“This proposed budget is the result of careful planning, close cooperation, and a common vision of how to move Erie County forward despite the daunting challenges presented to us by the COVID-19 epidemic,” Poloncarz said. “After working closely with all county departments and independent elected officials to review their budgets, the Division of Budget and Management was presented with a significant overall budget gap, which we immediately set to work to reduce. Difficult decisions needed to be made, but a realistic, cooperative and conservative approach helped to identify measures that were the most fair and responsible. In addition to an unprecedented cut in the property tax rate, the proposed budget includes funding for infrastructure projects, saves taxpayers millions by reducing the eligible amount of college chargebacks, and preserves the services and programs that the public expects.”
Erie County has largely been able to fund 2020 COVID-19 response operations including testing, contact tracing, PPE distribution and more through the use of Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Stability (CARES) Act (CRF) funds. These monies must be used by Dec. 30. In the absence of additional federal relief, in 2021 Erie County must fund these operations on its own. Based on estimates from the Erie County Department of Health, the proposed budget includes just over $20 million for COVID-19 operations in 2021, of which 75% will be eligible for FEMA reimbursement so long as the national state of emergency stays in effect.
The administration began meeting with department heads and independent elected officials in the spring to review their budgets and find ways to reduce a budget gap that had reached over $120 million prior to mid-year 2020 deficit remediation initiatives implemented to mitigate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Departments were encouraged to identify additional cuts amounting to 5% of their budget. A number of significant measures were put in place to address that gap, including:
•Implementation of all 5% cut packages submitted by departments;
•Additional cuts for departments that did not submit cut packages;
•Conversion of pay-as-you-go capital projects to bonded projects;
•Budgeting for an expected revenue anticipation note premium, and;
•The use of $10 million in undesignated fund balance.
The $1.473 billion proposed budget also eliminates 98 positions over the adjusted 2020 mid-year budget, lowering the total number of county positions to 4,537. This is a decrease of 246 total positions from the 2020 adopted budget. The 2021 proposed budget for the general fund is $1,473,105,849 and includes approximately $349 million of sales tax, which is collected by the county and distributed to local governments, school districts and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. This proposed budget amounts to a total decrease of 5.25% over the adopted 2020 budget.
Poloncarz said, “This proposed budget was not easy or enjoyable to produce and required my team and I to make hard choices, as the position we are in was not forced on us by any action or mistake of our own. Still, this is a prudent and balanced proposed budget that protects public health while staying fiscally cautious. It is not the budget I wanted to present, but it is a realistic one that we had to complete.”
For the fourth time, the proposed budget will again reduce the eligible amount of community college chargebacks, saving county taxpayers $4.4 million. The county executive’s office said chargebacks are state-mandated fees imposed on a county when its residents attend another county’s community college, affecting most towns in the county but disproportionately affecting municipalities near county borders with students attending community colleges in the neighboring county.
In addition, the proposed budget includes $26.7 million in road and bridge capital funding, with major infrastructure projects including the reconstruction of Borden and Bullis roads and the remediation of the slide on Back Creek Road. It also continues the administration’s commitment to keeping county parks in great shape and offering programs and activities by including $3.1 million in capital funding as well as continuing to share modest revenue growth with the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.
Elsewhere, the proposed budget maintains previous levels of recommended funding for cultural and community organizations such as Visit Buffalo-Niagara, the Buffalo Zoo and the Science Museum. While funding will not be increased to any organization and no new assistance will be provided to organizations that were not funded in 2020, no organization will see a reduction in their recommended funding level from Erie County.
“Through great effort and as further evidence of my commitment to ensuring our high quality of life at these uncertain times, we are maintaining proposed funding levels for arts and cultural organizations in Erie County,” Poloncarz said. “In many cases, Erie County is the No. 1 funding source for these not-for-profit agencies, and our commitment to their funding is a commitment to ensuring these theaters, museums, and other important community resources are able to survive the pandemic’s economic toll.”