Trying to follow the budget decisions in the Erie County Legislature is sort of like following a bouncing ball let loose on a six-lane highway.
Two votes have resulted in widely different decisions, since between the two votes the entire Republican contingent of legislators changed their mind about how to vote, under the influence of County Executive Chris Collins. Oh, and the county executive took Democrats to court over their budget proposal -- and lost.
A final vote will be held Wednesday morning, Dec. 22.
Here's how it looks: As it stands so far, the Buffalo and Erie County libraries, which have been getting their message out in rallies, public hearings, and at cultural gathering hosted by unions and community groups, are slated to hold on to $3 million in funding. Originally, Collins' cut their funding $4 million. During the first legislative vote following his action, and after numerous community events calling attention to the plight of the libraries, that $4 million was unanimously restored.
Then, according to Tim Galvin, president of the Librarians Association of Buffalo and Erie County Public Libraries, Collins persuaded Republicans that taxes were going to skyrocket if they put all the money back into the budget. He brokered a deal to put back $3 million out of the $4 million for public libraries, satisfying constituents' outcries, as long as those Republican legislators didn't override his vetoes. And that's what happened last Tuesday. Most other groups will now be getting lumps of coal in their stockings, since Collins' vetoes of 154 items held, which means less or no money for numerous county offices, cultural programs, county services, etc. etc.
Collins has put forth that the budget would mean a 15% tax increase; but Democrats and county comptroller have steadfastly maintained that no, it would not; the county had enough money from over-funded accounts and federal stimulus funds that Collins refused to release. So Collins took Democrats to State Supreme Court, but Judge Jay Glownia ruled last week that the Legislature's Democratic budget amendments were legal, and do not increase property taxes, confirming the comptroller's ruling.
"This ruling was equally important from a legal standpoint in holding that Erie County Executives cannot ignore the Legislature and make arbitrary "null and void" declarations when he/she disagrees with Legislature policy decisions and votes. Erie County government is not a dictatorship and Chris Collins cannot pick and chose when he will follow the law," said Comptroller Mark Poloncarz.
Even with $3 million restored, Galvin predicts a loss of 50 full-time equivalent jobs, including librarians and clerks from three different unions. Many branches will have fewer operating hours -- most will be cut from around 40 hours a week to no more than 24 hours. He said the loss equals $3.8 million total, not just the $1 million as it appears to be: the full $4 million would have generated another $2.8 million in matching funding.
Sixteen branches were closed in 2005 in Buffalo and never reopened.
"We have tons of work to do," said Galvin, noting that in the next months the unions will be dedicating themselves to being active in the November elections for legislative positions and county executive. In addition, the Librarians Association of Buffalo and Erie County Public Libraries will also be embarking on a campaign to educate the public about the role of professional librarians.