As Erie County struggles with the fiscal fallout from the coronavirus crisis, a major change in the way the county operates is high on the list of proposals to balance the budget.
If things continue without major federal help, the county is looking at a $138 million budget deficit. That is from County Executive Mark Poloncarz who announced his plans Thursday, without any federal help.
The plans call for a series of cuts, dipping into the reserves piggy bank, potential layoffs and making fundamental operational changes. The biggest single change would close the Holding Center as a housing unit and move all the residents and most of its operations to the jail in Alden. A Sheriff's Department analysis says that will save $10 million.
Poloncarz says both facilities have lots of empty space.
"Erie County Holding Center has a capacity of 638 people. Currently, has 300 individuals there. They are running at 47% capacity," he said. "The Erie County Correctional Facility has a capacity of 744 people and they are running at 223 individuals currently or at a capacity of 30%."
The county executive said that is mostly due to new state bail reforms and people being released early.
The building will remain in use because there are other county facilities in that complex. Residents who have court appearances will either be bused downtown or possibly use the long-unused video appearance system and not leave the Alden complex.
Poloncarz said the real answer is not cutting jobs and programs, but Washington coming through to bail out state and local governments from COVID-19 and that is in discussion.
"Our county's $130 million deficit highlights why state and local governments need federal assistance," he said. "Erie County's finances were strong before the COVID-19 outbreak. Our credit rating was the highest it had been in nearly 20 years. We managed our budget well."
He also insisted this is not a re-run of the 2004 Red/Green Budget crisis.
"The dollar amounts are actually smaller, with the $138 million still big," he said, "but the difference between the Red/Green fiscal crisis is the Red/Green fiscal crisis was a crisis created by the policymakers in Erie County government who knew that they were facing a fiscal crisis for years in a row. In which -- as I like to say -- they knew they were on a gravy train that they knew was heading toward a brick wall."
That budget crisis led to the County Control Board and what it called the "adult supervision" needed.