County issues in the forefront

It’s budget time in Erie County. Town budgets for 2019 are quietly moving along. Not a lot of media focus on them, which is not a good thing. The focus, such as it is, is on Mark Poloncarz’s proposed $1.53 billion 2019 county budget.

While there will be another budget revealed a year from now, just prior to the 2019 election for Erie County Executive, the 2019 budget that the County Legislature will act on by early December is for all intents and purposes the budget that will play a role in the 2019 election concerning spending and tax issues.

It appears that the Poloncarz spending plan has a lot to recommend it. You can tell this by the narrative that the County Executive draws to explain the document. Spending is up by 1.95 percent compared to the adjusted 2018 budget, but growth in property assessments and in sales tax collections are providing revenues to help pay for the additional spending. Some of the new jobs in the budget are supposed to be paid for by the state, which will ease the burden.

County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw’s comments about the budget are, at least so far, simply directed to a disagreement with the County Executive about whether the booming sales tax receipts are the result of a growing local economy (Poloncarz’s view) or the result of Donald Trump’s actions (Mychajliw’s reading). Split the difference and you will probably be just about right on the mark.

I might say that you could also tell that the proposed budget has a lot to recommend it just by listening to the comments of members of the County Legislature, but it seems that the legislators are busy with something else.

As someone who has looked at and studied county budgets for decades (somebody had to do it), I am amazed by how easily some budget braggadocio flows from budget documents right into the unquestioning arms of the media. I refer specifically to the commentary about how the county property tax rate is down nine cents per thousand dollars of assessed valuation, the lowest that number has been in ten years.

The thing is, there is no such thing as a county property tax rate. The number that is thrown around is $4.86 per thousand of assessed valuation. That number is calculated by dividing the total tax levy by the total amount of county equalized full market value, expressed in thousands. But not one Erie County property taxpayer actually pays their county taxes based on that rate.

In the olden days (meaning up until about 1999) the Buffalo Evening News would religiously detail the rates in each town and city. Alas, county budget documents no longer list the different county tax rates in the towns and cities and the Buffalo News no longer seems interested in those important facts.

In the olden days if the total county property tax levy went up, it was considered to be a tax increase. Now days, however, if the fictitious county property tax rate stays the same or drops a bit it is sometimes presented as a big deal.

Each of the county’s 25 towns and three cities have their own methods of determining how to conduct their property assessments. Some municipalities have current assessments but others are several years out-of-date. Some locales calculate their assessments at full market values, while others calculate at some percentage of full value. To balance things out the county relies on equalization rates, numbers produced by the State of New York, so that county taxes in every town or city are more or less on the same footing. There are actually 28 different county tax rates in Erie County.

So maybe your county taxes are going down, or maybe they are just going up a little. When you get your new county tax bill in January you will need to dig out last year’s bill to find out.

The salaries of county elected officials

The County’s Citizens Salary Review Commission has recently proposed pay raises for the county executive, the comptroller and the sheriff. The Commission didn’t suggest any increases for the county clerk or legislators. (The salary of the district attorney is set by the state and is tied to that state Supreme Court judges. It is currently $208,000). There have not been any increases in the salaries of county elected officials, other than for the district attorney, in twenty-two years.

The proposed increases are modest. The county executive’s salary would go from $103,248 to $118,376; the comptroller’s would be set at $94,037 (currently $80,613); the sheriff would be paid $89,343 instead of the current $79,092. The Consumer Price Index has increased by about 60 percent over the past 22 years.

The raises would go into effect when a new term in the respective offices begins (2020 for the county executive; 2022 for the comptroller and sheriff). The total annual cost of the increases would be $38,803 when fully implemented.

The only problem I see with these increases is that they are too modest. The salaries of these jobs should relate in some fashion to the responsibilities of the jobs. In addition, each of these three positions has staffs that are paid much more than the elected officials are paid.

I know the argument about how people run for the offices knowing what the salary would be. I don’t buy it. If legislators want to grandstand about the raises, so be it, but the changes are in order.

A convention center and a stadium

Speaking of spending county taxpayer money, some awfully big issues have been thrown on the table recently. A new convention center would cost upwards of $400 million. A new football stadium would go for a billion dollars plus.

I worked at the County Legislature in the 1970’s when the current convention center was discussed and approved. It was a contentious process. New Era Field (nee, Rich Stadium) was also built by the county in the 1970’s after much consternation and after a couple county legislators went to jail on bribery charges. In comparison with the prices being thrown around for the possible new facilities, the 1970’s era buildings were built for chump change.

Whether either of these projects ever gets off the ground is anyone’s guess. Poloncarz’s listening tour to gather public comments about a new convention center is a good idea. Projects of this magnitude need public buy-ins.

Since the state has been a major contributor to new convention centers in other cities, it would seem that the state could play a big role in this. Then again, after all the trouble that the Buffalo Billion has generated the folks in Albany might be a little gun shy about sending several hundred million more dollars to Buffalo for another big project. Or maybe if the Tesla project in South Buffalo doesn’t fulfill its promise, which seems like a possibility, the Riverbend building could be the new convention center.

What a new center could or would produce in the way of new business is debatable. Bruce Fisher’s analysis of the issue in a recent Public article notes some serious questions about what it would really produce.

The question of a new football stadium is even more up in the air than the convention center matter, but there is a clock of some sort ticking as the current lease for the Buffalo Bills gets closer to the end of its term. NFL moguls are evidently pressing for a newer, bigger building where they can collect bigger pots of money from the visiting team’s share of the kitty. Most Western New Yorkers, I would think, couldn’t care less what Jerry Jones or Robert Kraft want.

This might be a problem that could solve itself. Football is the major sports draw in America, but little by little it is losing its public fascination. Television ratings, which relate to the sport’s largest source of revenues, are slowly declining. Sooner or later the TV networks will decide that their investment isn’t worth quite what they are getting out of it.

The dangers of playing football are also a factor. Some high schools are beginning to have trouble filling out a team roster. That will affect interest in the sport.

And then there is the question of what city the owners of the Bills might threaten to move the team to if they choose to play that game. The league has run out of cities in which to place a franchise, with the costs of a new stadium bringing reality to would-be suitor cities. Unless of course you are Los Angeles, where the league is helping pay for the new stadium.

If it came down to it, would Erie County taxpayers support substantially higher taxes to build a new facility that most of them would never visit, a facility that would only be used a few days a year?

Discussions about a new convention center and a new stadium are best played out in the open, with lots of opportunities for honest and realistic consideration. And then let the chips fall where they may.