Less than a month into her candidacy for Erie County Executive, Republican Chrissy Casilio-Bluhm has wandered into controversy. Perhaps she could use some PR help.
The focus of her difficulties has been Twitter posts under her former handle, Chrissycaboom. She passed along comments suggesting the Damar Hamlin near tragedy was a PR stunt; that the 2020 election was stolen; and other conspiracy theories of the far-right.
Casilio scrubbed away those tweets, but that did not prevent enterprising journalists from reporting on them. First there was WNYmedia Network; followed by Geoff Kelly of Investigative Post; Charlie Specht and Alan Pergament of the Buffalo News; and Ron Plants of WGRZ. This blog also commented. All took aim at what Casilio’s previous tweeting suggested about her judgment.
Casilio has defended herself by saying that she accepts “full accountability” for the tweets. But then she goes on to say she “participated in conversations” on Twitter on the subjects even if she did not agree with the intent of the tweets. She was mostly interested in upping her click counts on social media. “Social media especially as a private citizen is a different bear.”
Even though Casilio is saying that her now deleted tweets were just part of her efforts to build up her Twitter numbers, why would anyone acting in a fair and reasonable fashion choose to spread false information?
Casilio has complained in her news interviews that her opponents were highlighting the tweets to distract attention from the issues she wants to address in the race for Erie County Executive. Thankfully WGRZ’s Plants drew her out on a couple very significant public issues that demonstrate her lack of understanding about public issues and, in particular, county government.
Casilio told Plants that she wants to cut county property taxes by ten percent to provide relief to taxpayers. Well, of course, everyone wants to pay less in taxes. The issue, however, is more complicated than a simple slogan suggests. Here are some facts that come into play with her tax cut proposal:
- Plants noted the recent history of such a suggestion. As part of his winning campaign for County Executive in 1999, Joel Giambra proposed cutting county property taxes by 20 percent. He proceeded to actually cut the county tax levy by 16 percent in his first budget for 2001, reducing the annual levy by $29.2 million. He continued with the same levy amount for the next three years, making minimal adjustments in expenses while spending down the county’s general fund balance.
- The fund balance did not last forever, and eventually Giambra proposed to increase the county’s sales tax by one percent, the so-called “Medicaid penny.” That proposal was part of a 2005 budget plan Giambra proposed to fill the budget gap created by the diminished property tax levy and growing expenses. Giambra laid out two budget options: the “Green Budget” which included revenues from the “Medicaid penny” sales tax increase to cover the revenue shortfall; and a “Red Budget,” which would have slashed spending to meet the lower revenue numbers absent the sales tax increase.
- The Red-Green budget fiasco led over a few months period to the creation of the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority (the Control Board), which in 2006 imposed strict controls over county finances.
- The 2005 County Charter Revision Commission produced voter-approved restrictions controlling the use of the county fund balance and setting a requirement that the unassigned Fund Balance be at least five percent of the county’s General Fund.
- For 2023 the county’s property tax levy is $329.7 million, which includes $301.4 million for general county purposes and $28.3 million for the county library system.
- If Casilio were elected county executive and proceeded to cut the county tax levy by ten percent in the next budget, the levy would go down by approximately $33 million.
- Section 2505 of the County Charter requires maintaining a 5 percent unassigned General Fund balance, which in 2021 (the relevant year) was $73.6 million. In future years the Fund Balance and General Fund numbers will change, but the order of magnitude will likely remain similar to the five percent rule calculations in effect in 2023.
- A ten percent cut in the levy would likely breach the 5 percent Fund Balance rule and require significant cuts in spending to honor the Charter. Much of county government spending is mandated by the state government and is basically untouchable for cuts.
- That means that departments and programs that are not state mandated, such as roads, parks, youth and senior services, libraries and the like, could sustain cuts much larger than ten percent, leading to service reductions and closures. A ten percent or larger cut in library funding would result in major branch and central library closures or reduced hours of services.
The bottom line with Casilio’s ten percent property tax cut proposal is that it would need to be accompanied by significant cuts in county programs and services. She told Channel 2 that the county would “definitely need to be careful” about what is cut. She suggests that she would be “holding commissioners more accountable in performance and also in managing the budget” and would “make sure that all of the employees are working more efficiently.” Budgets consist of hard numbers. Being “careful,” “more accountable,” and more efficient don’t add up in a budget. Absent the details, Casilio’s tax cut plan is just a bumper sticker slogan.
Casilio in her WGRZ interview also suggested that a county executive should use some leverage based upon the school districts in Erie County receiving annual sales tax revenues from the county. “You can’t tell me that a leadership position like county executive can’t have some influence, some conversation with the various districts as how best to use the money.”
Decades ago school districts in Erie County, along with cities, towns and villages were part of a sales tax sharing formula that contractually created the distribution formula for the first three percent of the county sales tax; the county retains it most of the proceeds from the additional 1.75 percent sales taxes that have been added in recent years.
School districts divide up 29 percent of the three percent sales tax. In 2023 that produces $116.9 million, not $180 million as Casilio stated in her interview. Channel 2’s Plants pointed out to Casilio that the school districts have elected boards that appoint a superintendent and make budget decisions for their respective districts.
What would County Executive Casilio want school districts to do with their sales tax revenues? She mentioned some programs that she might be interested in influencing such as “early interventions, getting kids up to speed, making sure that kids are getting to school.”
Chrissy Casilio-Bluhm’s first venture into county government matters suggests that she is not prepared to actually discuss the issues. It is only the end of March but usually in a campaign for a major office like county executive a candidate who is serious about the campaign has already done her homework. Let’s see what comes next.