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Mayday! (Are we shuffling off to Buffalo?)


For Monroe County, next year marks the end of an era.

After 2006, the county's annual budgets will almost certainly top a billion dollars. In fact, we may even top that mark in 2006. The budget proposed by County Executive Maggie Brooks and adopted by the legislature in a 24-5 vote last week totals $998.9 million. That leaves just $1.1 million to absorb changes from revenue shortfalls and expense overages that may crop up during the year.

Despite the legislature's overwhelming support, it's a budget that no one seems terribly happy with. At last week's Lej meeting, the specter of ErieCounty hovered over the chambers during the budget debate. Earlier this year, the state announced that our neighbors to the west couldn't get their fiscal act together and would be going under a control board, just as the City of Buffalo had earlier.

MonroeCounty's situation is not that bad. Yet.

But even as she released the 2006 budget, Brooks warned of possible deficits reaching nearly $50 to $60 million dollars in each of the next two fiscal years. She also warned that her budget was balanced on the temporary foundation of one-shots --- money that comes once and never again, like the money from the state's settlement with tobacco companies.

That hasn't escaped the notice of her critics. Minority Leader Stephanie Aldersley was among the five Democrats who voted against the budget, pointing to the apparent lack of a plan for the future.

"This is a head-in-the-sand budget," Aldersley said during the debate. That prompted Republican Legislator Mark Assini's vehement objection: "Just the opposite," he said. "We're providing stability in a stormy time." Which prompted Lynda Garner Goldstein to quip that it was a "false sense of stability." And so forth.

Partisan jockeying for sound bites aside, both parties know they have a problem.

"We've been very, very honest" about the fact that the budget required one-shots to balance it, Brooks said Tuesday after the budget was adopted. And while acknowledging that "that's not the way to climb out of this situation," she defended the practice, saying, "We're not going to leave money on the table."

Brooks and her Republican allies in the legislature cast the budget as the most responsible stopgap measure on hand, buying the county time to fix "structural imbalances." (Translation: the county will soon be spending more money than it's taking in.)

"This is a good budget for this community, and it gives us time to look ahead," Brooks said.

But what do Brooks and the rest of her administration see when they look ahead?

As she has tirelessly reminded voters, almost 80 percent of the county's spending is dictated by the state. That includes things like Medicaid and other social-welfare programs, which are growing, not shrinking. Yet Brooks and the Republican legislators who back her came to office promising that they would not raise taxes. She's already partially reneged on that by allowing the levy (the total of property tax revenues) to rise with increased assessments and new construction, while keeping the tax rate the same.

One of the few revenue streams left to be tapped would be a small hike in the sales tax. (It's worth noting that while Republican legislature candidates in this year's races campaigned on keeping property taxes "stable," they didn't mention sales tax.)

In the short run, Brooks appears to be pinning her hopes on finding savings in Medicaid --- particularly by rooting out fraud, waste, and inefficiencies in the program locally. To that end, she's appointed Bill Carpenter --- her budget director up until now --- as the county's new Medicaid Czar.

"This is our voice for change in county government," she said Tuesday. "I think it's important that we have a person in this administration focused on our most important expense and one that has the greatest impact on the taxpayers in this county."

(And though Carpenter will focus on local issues, Brooks has also campaigned on national and state levels to change a formula that sticks it upstate municipalities. She's met with some success, working with other county executives to secure a state cap on the amount of Medicaid money local governments have to provide.)

Democrats agree with Brooks that Medicaid is an important chunk of the budget to watch, but they don't fully share her optimism about finding lots of savings there. Some even questioned whether the Medicaid Czar appointment was a wise one, given Carpenter's reputation as an outstanding budget director.

"I really hope he's going to find us a few million dollars," says Aldersley. But, she adds, "there is no one silver bullet."

Brooks' willingness to move Carpenter to Medicaid Czar may be an indication of just how desperate her administration is to find more savings. Aldersley again: "I think she's praying for that Medicaid fraud to pay off."

Even if targeting the terrible triplets of Medicaid waste, fraud, and abuse does pay big dividends, Democrats complain that it still amounts to a one-shot. With or without fraud, Medicaid costs are expected to maintain their steep ascent, and even Brooks hasn't claimed that Medicaid savings can forestall deficits in 2007 or 2008.

Dems want to know what her plan is for tackling those deficits. Some of them --- even a few who voted for the new budget --- don't see evidence of such a plan in the spending proposal.

"Long-term deficits are not addressed in this budget," Aldersley told her fellow legislators. "It increases taxes. It increases spending. It increases borrowing."

Worse still, she says, it "overstates revenue" and "understates expenses." If that turns out to be true, it might mean a deficit as early as 2006.

"We cannot pretend everything is rosy," Garner Goldstein urged. "We must be preparing now."

The unspoken impetus in Goldstein's words --- one mentioned aloud by other legislators during the debate --- is the fear of sharing ErieCounty's fate.

Buffalo and ErieCounty now run chronic deficits yet have had to slash services and employees.

Legislator Todd Bullard, who's had experience working with governments in both cities, says that didn't have to happen. He points to Erie County Executive Joel Giambra's insistence on cutting taxes in the face of ballooning costs to fulfill a campaign promise.

"They lacked the courage to do the right thing early on," said Bullard. Still, sticking to austere spending plans didn't save Erie County Republicans, whose minority status in the legislature was harshly reinforced in the recent election. They now hold just three of the 15 seats, the lowest ratio in that county's history. The party, blaming Giambra, has cut him off. Something similar could happen here, Bullard told the legislature.

"Sooner or later the chickens are going to come home to roost," he said.

Giambra is losing his grip on power for lowering taxes; George Bush the senior lost his, in part, for raising them ("Read my lips"). The political fate of both those men can't be far from Maggie Brook's mind as she turns toward crafting a budget for 2007, the year she'll face reelection.