Erie County’s COVID-19 infection rate has been falling since January and about a quarter of county residents have received at least the first dose of the vaccine. So Republicans in the county Legislature are questioning why County Executive Mark Poloncarz still has emergency powers.
The Minority Caucus introduced a resolution Tuesday to revoke Poloncarz’s executive authority, which has essentially allowed him to spend money without legislative approval to fight the pandemic.
Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo said Poloncarz hasn’t abused that power, but the power is no longer necessary.
“One year ago today, we were all not sure what was going to happen as we dealt with COVID-19,” said Lorigo, a Conservative Party member who caucuses with the Republicans. “A year later, we're smarter, we're more prepared, and it's time that we get back to the people's business, and the Legislature has a role in that.”
The county Legislature first permitted Poloncarz to authorize contracts, make purchases and hire more staff without their approval during the early days of the pandemic in March 2020.
On Tuesday, Republicans claimed they thought that power only applied to a $5 million county fund, and disapproved when Poloncarz then used the power to spend the county’s $160 million in CARES Act funding.
Now another $178 million is coming to the county via the American Rescue Plan Act.
“Before the county executive gets his hands on that money and spends it as he sees fit, the Legislature needs to take back our power,” Lorigo said. “We need to have a seat at the table and we need to deliberate about how that money's being spent.”
Speaking at his Tuesday afternoon COVID briefing, Poloncarz said most of the emergency powers he’s using right now actually come from New York State Executive Law. Therefore county legislators don’t have the ability to take them away.
“This is not like the governor's office where the Assembly and Senate gave them some extraordinary powers above and beyond what they already had,” he said, referring to the fact the state Legislature recently took back Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s emergency powers. “I understand Republicans said, ‘Hey, in Albany they pushed the governor to have his powers revoked.’ Well those powers are totally different than the powers that are granted to me.”
However, Poloncarz’s power to authorize contracts without legislative approval does indeed come from the county. The power was re-established by county legislators in December as part of their 2021 budget resolutions.
Poloncarz noted the resolutions specified legislators still have to approve any contract worth over $250,000.
Plus, Poloncarz noted the pandemic isn’t over. There remain over 130 people hospitalized with COVID in Erie County.
“Minority Caucus Republicans want to make it seem like COVID-19 has gone away. It hasn't,” he said. “I need to be able to respond and sign my name when it's necessary so that we can immediately act.”
The county Legislature only meets four days a month. Republicans’ resolution states they’d be willing to convene an emergency session within 48 hours’ notice to vote on anything COVID-related.
But Poloncarz said even that may not always be enough. He pointed to outreach calls that recently scheduled appointments for 1,100 people to get vaccinated at the Delavan-Grider Community Center. County officials made the decision to do that on a Saturday and the appointments were scheduled that Monday.
“We need, in an emergency situation such as this, the ability to cut on a dime,” Poloncarz said. “And you can't cut on a dime sometimes in a 48-hour period.”
Poloncarz said he’ll “be glad” to give up his emergency powers once the pandemic is over.
“I'd like to take some time off. I really would like to be able to go on a full week's vacation somewhere. I don't want this any longer than I need to,” he said.
Ultimately it will be up to Democrats, who hold the majority in the Legislature, to decide whether to revoke Poloncarz’s emergency powers.
Lorigo said Republicans have yet to speak with their Democratic colleagues, which he partially blamed on a lack of in-person meetings, but said Democrats should be ashamed if they don’t vote for the resolution.
“They need to take that vote and say to their constituents either, ‘We want to come to the table and do the work that you elected us to do,’" Lorigo said, "or, ‘We want to take a hands off approach and let your money be spent how ever one man sees fit.’”