Like Saul on the road to Damascus, hard-line Republicans came to accept that they could not cut $42 million out of the county budget, says Republican legislator Ray Santirocco.
"They [the cuts] just weren't there," he says. "Despite [Republicans'] philosophical orientation, they have to take into account reality, and Bill [Smith, majority leader] is a realist."
Almost right up until passage last week, Smith said he was working on a budget amendment that included no tax increases of any kind. The lej had to come up with an alternative to the $972.1 million budget proposed by County Executive Jack Doyle. Doyle's budget closed a $42 million deficit with a six-tenths-of-a-penny sales tax increase and some cuts. The increase, however, needed state approval, and the state assembly refused to go along.
So Republicans went to work finding a way to balance the budget without the sales tax increase. The process included a review of every county department, scoping for cuts.
The result was $5.7 million in additional cuts, including cuts in the county clerk's office, district attorney's office, sheriff's office, and in parks. The GOP also took the controversial step of ending the county subsidy for the city school nurse program. In response, the city school board has promised legal action.
Republicans did reinstate funding for a handful of programs, including Lifeline, and also reduced proposed increases in zoo and parks fees.
After making the cuts, however, it became clear that the budget could not be balanced without a property tax increase, Republicans say. The final budget includes a 13.3 percent increase in property taxes. The tax rate jumps from $8.03 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $9.10 per $1,000.
"This was the only revenue source left. We went through that budget and looked at it every which way," said Bill Smith during an appearance on WXXI 1370 AM last Friday. "People need to look at that budget and go through line by line to see just how lean county government is."
Santirocco introduced his own alternative amendment to the Doyle budget. It would have closed the gap by increasing both the property and sales taxes. Under the Santirocco amendment, the property tax rate would have risen from $8.03 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $8.66 per $1,000 --- an increase of 7.8 percent. He would have boosted the sales tax by a quarter of a cent.
Santirocco needed a total of 15 votes to get the amendment through, and fell short by four or five.
"It died its own natural death," he says.
Republicans wouldn't support the amendment because of the state assembly's position on the sales tax, Santirocco says. Democrats, according to minority leader Stephanie Aldersley, thought the property tax increase was too high.
Democrats also resented the way the Santirocco plan was packaged, Aldersley says. Democrats, she says, were being forced to choose the Santirocco plan as a "lesser-of-two-evils" alternative to a possible Smith plan that was expected to include deep cuts.
"They were certainly holding it over our heads," Aldersley says.
History will judge whether Democrats' decision to lay low during budget negotiations was shrewd political strategy or a colossal mistake.
It is the Republicans' responsibility to produce the budget, Aldersley said whenever she was asked why the Democrats weren't working on a plan of their own. Democrats don't have a budget office, she said, and don't have access to the information needed to produce an informed proposal.
"Their choice of strategy, I would question," Santirocco says. "It seems to me they could have come up with a proposal to meet the needs of their constituency. The minority has a responsibility to be raising the counter arguments. They chose to enjoy watching us perspire."
Democrats, Aldersley says, truly believed that the GOP would come up with a more moderate plan that, lacking adequate support in the Republican caucus, would need some Democratic votes to pass. At that time, she says, Democrats would have proposed changes.
None of that happened.
"This just blew us away," Aldersley says. "I think they [Republicans] were a little shocked themselves. They were not happy."
The GOP, she says, needed to be unanimous to provide cover for county executive-elect Maggie Brooks. Brooks, Aldersley says, campaigned on a pledge not to raise property taxes and could, theoretically, rescind the property tax increase once she takes office. But now Brooks can argue that it would be inappropriate to go against the will of the entire Republican caucus.
Democrats, Aldersley says, would have found other ways to balance the budget. Several members were interested, she says, in charging municipalities without their own police force for use of the Monroe County Sheriff's road patrol.
Democrats would have done their best, she adds, to keep funding for city school nurses.
One controversial aspect of the budget negotiations is who was there and who wasn't.
Democrats have repeatedly called for Brooks' involvement. Brooks has said she can balance the budget without tax increases or cuts, so Democrats beseeched her, through the media, to share that knowledge with the county legislature.
Brooks has kept a very low profile, not even talking to local media. One television station went so far as to put Brooks' picture on a milk carton --- like missing children --- during a recent story on the budget situation.
Brooks' presence at budget sessions, Republicans say, would have been inappropriate.
"It would have complicated things from our point of view," Santirocco says. "She's well advised not to be there. We wouldn't know exactly how to treat her. It would be an extraordinary situation."
Republican Party chair Steve Minarik was present for at least two of the budget sessions.
Minarik's presence, Santirocco says, would have been inappropriate if he tried to involve himself in the nitty-gritty of the budget. As it is, he says, the party chief's only role was to urge unanimity in the Republican caucus.
Some Democrats believe Minarik helped craft the Republican amendment.
"There's politics and there's government, and they're not the same," says Democrat Lynda Garner Goldstein. "We would never involve a political party chair in our deliberations."
At least one Democratic Party chair in recent history has taken part in legislators' budget discussions, however. Attorney Rob Brown, who was Democratic chair from 1992 to 1994, says that both he and Minarik sat in on their caucuses' sales-tax discussions. "In a legislative body with multi-party representation," says Brown, "I think the caucus functions at least in part as a political body. The problem arises when, as in this case, the majority party makes a final decision in caucus and fails to include the minority party in the discussion or even the public meeting. That would be a problem whether or not the chair was present."
Brooks' time will come, say both Democrats and Republicans.
Expenses, legislators say, will continue to outpace revenues for the foreseeable future. So though Brooks has managed to dodge a bullet this time, the county will likely face a similar situation next year.
And with even Republicans saying there are no more cuts to be made, Brooks will have fewer options available to close whatever inevitable gap occurs.
"2005 will challenge Maggie Brooks to be very innovative in administering the finances of the county," Driscoll says.
Garner Goldstein hopes Brooks will keep her pledge to bring a more cooperative attitude to county government.
"It'll be very interesting to see," she says. "I hope it won't be acrimonious and that she's willing to respect us as peers and we'll have input."