Erie County borrowing and spending

I served as a member of the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority (ECFSA), aka the Control Board, for five years. I voluntarily resigned at the end of 2010 so that State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli could name his own representative to the board. The position is still vacant.

We certainly had some interesting times on that board. There were many discussions with County Executive Giambra and his staff about what they could or should spend or borrow. The County Legislature and county comptroller also got involved in those discussions.

The Control Board, because of the legislation that created it, has county sales tax revenues diverted to it by New York State, which are subsequently sent to the county. Because of the diversion of those funds as well as other reasons, the Board receives a better credit rating than the county on its’ own can achieve at this time.

Recently the county executive, legislature and comptroller again got into the question about whether the control board or the county comptroller should do the borrowing for the county. Thirty-five million dollars will be borrowed for 2015 capital projects. The board estimates that it can save the county $588,000 if it does the borrowing; the comptroller’s office estimates that the county could save $927,000 if the board does the borrowing. The county executive, through the budget office, questions whether those savings are realistic.

The administration also suggests that because the county’s financial picture has improved it is time for the county to once again conduct all its bonding activity on its own.

From all that I have seen and heard, the county is doing well financially. Balanced budgets, controlled costs, slightly lower taxes, and a healthy fund balance are all part of the picture. The credit goes to County Executive (and former Comptroller) Mark Poloncarz; former County Executive Chris Collins; the County Legislature; and to some degree, Comptroller Mychajliw. The aftershocks from the red-green budget fiasco and the subsequent financial reforms of the County Charter have also helped to focus people’s attention. Keep up the good work.

I have followed and from time-to-time been an active participant in the county finances over the past several decades. Experience has shown that it is very difficult over an extended period of time to keep county finances under control. It is tempting to use up funds balances; that was why the use of those funds was tightened by the Charter Revision Commission. Sometimes the economy affects things. A slump can reduce sales tax revenues, which the county has become heavily dependent on, or social service caseloads can climb. The Canadian dollar affects things given the fact that a nice piece of the sales tax revenues comes from across the border. State pension costs have been known to spike, and the state from time-to-time sends mandates the county’s way that drive up costs. All of these things make managing the county finances difficult.

Concerning the point at hand, I sympathize with County Executive Poloncarz about wanting to re-take control of the borrowing. But such a move is expensive, whether there will be a $588,000 savings or a $927,000 savings by having the control board do the borrowing, even if those savings stretch over several years.

Poloncarz wants the Erie County Industrial Development Agency to purchase tablets for the agency’s use from a recently set-up local firm that can undercut the cost of getting iPads from Microsoft. It’s nice to support a local firm, and if it can save a few thousand dollars in the process, and the product is good, the move makes sense.

But that line of thinking makes it even harder to walk away from a savings of several hundred thousands of dollars by having the ECFSA do the county borrowing. In this case, the money savings trump whatever good feelings come from retrieving a function lost for now to another agency.

County Spending

County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw and County Legislature Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo have proposed spending $3 million of the county’s 2014 budget surplus on Canalside and Museum of Science projects. This follows the announcement of the Comptroller that the ’14 budget surplus was $9.4 million.

That there was a surplus from last year is not in question, although the County Executive’s office has not confirmed anything yet and the 2014 books will not be closed until later in May, when an official surplus number can be determined.

Small budget surpluses are a sign of good management, and a surplus of less than one percent of the total budget falls into that category. And while I don’t know anything more about the proposed Canalside and Museum projects other than what I have read in the News, I don’t question their value.

But after all the pain that the county went through ten years ago as it sorted out its financial mess, it is important that the county do all that it can to follow an orderly process for spending operating or capital funds. So let the Mychajliw-Lorigo proposal go forward to be considered, but do that as part of the planning for the 2016 budget. Running out to spend some extra money that may be available without assessing how it all fits in to the overall budget plan is just asking for trouble.