“Our Place in History" was the theme of Thursday’s State of Erie County address, but that place in history will rely on quite a bit of funding.
The state of the Erie County is strong, according to County Executive Mark Poloncarz, but he believes it could be stronger with his lengthy list of initiatives.
A ban on tobacco and e-cigarette products at pharmacies, increased funding for the county’s anti-drug task force, a new planning board and a committee to improve Erie County Community College, fair housing policies, changes to hiring practices, and a new county planning board were among them. But the forward-thinking plans were quickly framed by concerns over cost.
“He’s got a lot of proposals that are going to cost taxpayers a lot of money and at this point I don’t know how we’re going to pay for it,” said Erie County Legislature Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo.
In light of Thursday morning’s report by Erie County Comptroller Stephan Mychajliw that Poloncarz underestimated 2015 sales tax revenues, questions were asked whether the money is available to spend $750,000 a year on plans to increase protection from lead poisoning, and an estimated %50,000 to $70,000 for an environmental impact review ahead of plans to ban plastic shopping bags. The latter is required because New York State’s environmental impact laws prevent the county from banning plastic bags without it.
“So we’re nine million in the hole on the sales tax projections for 2015, we’re under budget, and the County Executive seems to think that the best way to solve every problem that Erie County is facing is by throwing more money at it, and I don’t think we can afford it,” said Lorigo.
Poloncarz stood firm in his position that the funds are there.
“I’d be very disappointed if the Comptroller objected to the lead proposal. That means he’s willing to put additional kids’ lives at risk,” said Poloncarz. “We have the money. We have a $1.5 billion budget.”
Poloncarz claimed 2015 will end with a surplus of two to three million dollars that could be rolled into his proposals.
“Money’s not the issue when you’re talking about protecting children or protecting our environment,” said Poloncarz.
Money aside, Poloncarz framed his address by noting that Western New York is being re-discovered nationally and internationally as a region reclaiming its former glory. He said a better Erie County is within our grasp, and imagines it with changes to the County’s workforce.
He aims to make first-source hiring of women and minorities a priority in 2016, and said the change can be can be implemented through an executive order.
“We are looking at putting together an executive order for contracts. We right now have [Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprise] provisions in place that say if you get a country contract, you have to have a certain percentage of it go to women or minority owned businesses, but that does not necessarily mean that a lot of minorities get the jobs on those projects or women,” said Poloncarz. “And we don’t even know if all those jobs are necessarily Erie County residents.”
Poloncarz wants to ensure that the vast majority of those jobs go to county residents and help women and minorities, especially in the construction trades.
Poloncarz also wants to initiate a residency requirement for new county employees. His proposal differs from a similar law proposed by Lorigo in 2013. Poloncarz vetoed it then because it required residency at the start of hire.
“What I said back then is I would approve a law, I would sign into law, a law that gave a little leeway afterwards,” said Poloncarz. “I’ll give you an example: If I was to bring in a commissioner, like I found someone in a national search to be a commissioner in a department and I appointed them under the law that I vetoed, they would have had to have moved into Erie County and been an Erie County resident on day one. Then their appointment could go to the legislator that could reject so they no longer have a job.”
Poloncarz said he talked to legislators on both sides of the aisle immediately after the State of the County address who are supportive of the residency requirement. With the right backers, Poloncarz said he’s confident the requirement will be passed later this year.
Lorigo was among them, saying he thinks he can work with Poloncarz. He also is interested in working with the Poloncarz in revamping the county’s ethics code.
Some of the initiatives Poloncarz laid out require state-level support. When he asked for Western New York’s delegation to fight for fair investment in the county’s road and bridge infrastructure, State Assemblyman Sean Ryan called out, “You got it.”
“We’re pushing really hard right now in this year’s budget to make sure that the road and bridge fund and the capital money coming in for roads matches the allocation we’re giving into new York City for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, for the MTA. So we’re hoping to get what we call, ‘parody,’” said Ryan.
Ryan said if he and his colleagues are successful, state funding will kick-start a number of infrastructure programs in the county.
Poloncarz also renewed his call for modernization of the state’s Child Protective Services laws.
“In 2014, my administration proposed and authored 19 separate pieces of legislation to modernize the state’s Child Protective Service laws,” said Poloncarz. “The original law was drafted 40 years ago and hasn’t changed much since then. Some of these proposals – I’m proud to say – were introduced as legislation in Albany, while others were not. I’m disappointed to say none were passed.”
Poloncarz said accommodations must be made for modern technology, changing family structures, societal pressures, and the need for better information for CPS workers. Ryan said Poloncarz’s proposals last year were stalled by criminal justice issues. He’s hoping to approach the problem from a different angle this year.