Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz unveiled his $1.47 billion budget for 2021 Thursday, calling it the toughest one he's ever crafted, as the county addresses a loss in sales tax revenue brought on by COVID and pandemic-related economic shutdowns.
"It was not easy," Poloncarz said. "It was the most difficult budget that I've been involved with as county executive, and the most difficult budget since, truthfully, the Red-Green fiscal crisis when I was elected to be the county comptroller."
Earlier this year, county officials anticipated a budget deficit as high as $80 million. But they got some good news along the way, with sales tax revenue losses far lower than first feared. Under the budget proposal, sales tax revenue losses are calculated at $13.8 million, or a loss of 2.3 percent.
The proposed spending plan includes an increased tax levy of $7.5 million, based on new property assessments. That remains below the state's 2.5 percent tax cap. And the overall property tax rate, Poloncarz announced, is $4.43 per thousand, a decrease of about six percent from 2020.
The budget eliminates 98 positions, on top of 148 cut in a deficit remediation plan earlier this year. One of the positions to be cut is within his own office. The budget also does not fund initiatives as seen in past spending plans, including ErieNet, a countywide broadband project.
Poloncarz explained while taxes could have been raised above the cap to continue funding such projects, he thought it would send a bad message to the public.
"We've already seen a lot of the towns release tentative budgets for 2021. And they had some pretty big tax increases," he said. "It's not the budget that I wanted, truthfully, because I would have liked to have funded ErieNet, our broadband initiative. I would have liked to have funded a number of other programs. But we're not going to be able to do that, because we just don't have the money to do that. My goal was to keep services the same, to not cut services, to ensure that we could provide for the arts and cultural institutions and things like that. And we were able to do that. But it required some some pain on our end."
The budget also sets aside $20 million for COVID-19 needs, including testing, contact tracing, personal protective equipment distribution and other spending allowed under the federal CARES Act. Poloncarz added that under CARES, the money must be spent by the end of the year.
The proposal also includes $26.7 million for road and bridge work, $3.1 million in capital funding to keep parks in good condition and leaves funding for arts and culturals at the same level as in the 2020 budget.