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Top secret: Monroe County budget

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I'd say the county budget process this year reads like a dime-store novel, but that wouldn't be fair. It has more literary merit than that. And there is so much more at stake.

            There's pathos aplenty, to be sure. See the throngs of desperate people who've been turning up at lej meetings, alternately begging and demanding lawmakers preserve their programs.

            There's also an element of espionage. Members of the lej's opposing parties have been meeting --- or not, depending on whom you ask --- to close a $42 million budget gap without sky-high tax increases or draconian cuts. But nobody will say who is meeting with whom and what exactly they may be working on. Some legislators predict that a budget vote could come at any time, but that, too, is up in the air.

            There may also be a hint of blackmail in the works. Is the proposed Safety Net shift --- putting welfare on a charge-back system --- a way to lure Democrats in the county lej to the bargaining table? Under the Republican proposal, Safety Net costs would be assessed to the municipalities in which the recipients live, with the municipalities assumingly receiving a bill. Ninety percent of the recipients live in the city. The plan might be a way to pressure state assembly Dems, who've said no dice to Doyle's proposed sales tax increase.

            "Sometimes, to negotiate or get things done, folks play a little bit of a card game, matching various interests against one another," says Republican legislator Mark Assini. "It's like the only way to gain leverage in the assembly, especially with our state delegation. It says, 'OK, if you're not going to be able to work with us on the sales tax thing, then we'll find another way. And unfortunately, the way we found is not pleasing to the assembly delegation.' That's, right now, how our political system works: Who has leverage on whom?"

            But state assemblyman David Gantt says the GOP is wasting its time.

            "I think what they should do is go back and talk to their Democratic colleagues on the legislature," he says. "I haven't seen any sales-tax proposal. I don't know how they could be leveraging something that I haven't seen."

            I believe, perhaps naively, that everyone in the legislature is operating in what they honestly think is the public good. Undermining that, however, is a lack of trust between parties and, sometimes, within the parties themselves. Factor into that the standard philosophy of partisan politics: "Never do anything that makes the other side look good," and real structural problems within the budget itself, and you get a great, big mess.

So, how will this all play out? I wouldn't count anything out. Republican legislator Mike Hanna says some sort of property tax increase is "inevitable."

            Hanna, incidentally, is a key player in the budget negotiations, if my anonymous source is to be believed. Look to Mike Hanna and fellow Republican Ray Santirocco to "set the stage" for the resolution to the mess, this insider said, before straightening his trench coat and lurching off into the night.

            Hanna and Santirocco deny playing any special role in the budget dealings.

            "I've known some of the Democrats for a long time and so has Mike," Santirocco says. "And it's easier to talk under those circumstances. But I really don't want to describe my role as anything other than a toiler in the vineyard."

            Santirocco says he's hopeful that the budget drama will be resolved with an amendment supported "by a majority on both sides."

            As far as the sales tax goes, that's up to Democrats in the county lej, Santirocco says. They have to be the ones to go to the assembly delegation and ask them to "please postpone your desire to trash Maggie Brooks and help people out of this hole."

            Assini believes that some of his Republican colleagues are indeed holding out hope that a sales-tax increase might still work.

            "Obviously we would like the assembly delegation to work with the County of Monroe, but if they're not willing to do that, then we have other choices that we have to make," he says.

            Hanna says the whole thing may be solved with a combination of a property tax increase, cuts, and charge backs, but that's just one possibility.

            "It's wide open, still," he says.

I do believe the parties will work together in some capacity. How can they not? The Republicans, surely, don't want to be held solely responsible for a budget that is going to be painful any way you slice it. And no matter how strong their desire to see Republicans squirm, I can't believe Democrats are just going to sit back, mute, and watch the GOP cut crucial programs and dump a $14 million Safety Net bill on the city.

            Ed Lundberg, a political science professor at MCC, agrees. He says the secrecy is necessary to preserve a delicate negotiation process. Leaking plans to the press, he says, could blow the whole thing.

            Lundberg, too, believes there's life in some sort of mutated sales-tax proposal.

            "I do believe the state is going to have to come to the aid of the city and county," he says. "This is a very, very serious shortfall. The state delegation eventually will come around, after they are properly approached."

            If I were to go out on a limb, I'd say that some sort of bipartisan agreement will emerge that no one will like but that both sides will agree to live with. I'd bet that agreement does not include a Safety Net shift. In fact, Stephanie Aldersley, Democratic minority leader in the lej, says that members of her caucus will not negotiate until Safety Net is off the table.

            Social services is a big piece of the pie, and Santirocco has said that when you need to make cuts, you look first to the big numbers. But I can't imagine what that would do to a department already reeling from reorganization earlier this year. I hope they won't make further cuts, but it could happen. As a Democratic insider points out, if the Safety Net shift is taken off the table, the county has to come up with the money to keep the program going somehow.

Democrats, Aldersley says, are not inclined to vote for anything Republicans have "run up the flagpole" so far. That means no Safety Net shift and no big cuts in social services. Democrats are also opposed to the sales-tax increase, according to Aldersley.

            "I hope it's dead," she says. "But it's a very, very fluid situation."

            There have been informal meetings between members of her caucus and the Republican caucus, she says, but both sides "are still very far apart." Democrats do not have a counter proposal to the Doyle budget, Aldersley says, but are waiting for a Republican amendment to use as a "working point."

            The process has been so secretive, Aldersley says, because nobody wants to be the first one to say big cuts or tax increases are in the works.

            "Whoever does that has no future in politics," she says.

This story needs a hero; someone to swoop in and save the day. Could it be county executive-elect Maggie Brooks? Democrats are leaving the door wide open. Brooks has said that she can balance the budget without service cuts, higher taxes, or job losses. Presumably, Democrats say, she knows how she'd do it. So why is she keeping this precious information to herself?

            "We'd really like an opportunity to talk with her about how to do that," Aldersley says, adding that she will not support anything that doesn't have the backing of the new county executive.

            "If there's one thing I want you to put in the paper, it's that," Aldersley says.

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