Taxes and campaign tactics highlight Erie County Executive debate

Oct 10, 2019

A televised debate Wednesday evening started with a fight over the difference between the tax rate and the tax levy, and eventually turned into an argument about PhotoShopped photos used in campaign ads. The campaign for Erie County Executive has been getting progressively rougher as Election Day approaches.

Incumbent Democratic County Executive Mark Poloncarz squared off with Legislator Lynne Dixon, the Republican and Independence parties challenger, at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in a debate sponsored by WIVB-TV.

The debate opened with a fight over the candidates throwing true and accurate fiscal data at each other, carrying different meanings. For Dixon, it is the tax levy, the amount raised by property taxes.

"He raised the levy and the levy is what matters because that's where you pay your bills, where you pay your property taxes," Dixon said. "The property taxes have, in fact, gone up 24% since he's been in office and if the budget goes through as proposed by him this year, it will be up to 29%."

That is accurate. The county executive turned it around pointing to the tax rate, what is charged on the value of a property. Poloncarz said that rate is rising in other places, but not in Erie County.

"We have one of the lowest tax rates in all of our community," Poloncarz said. "We have had assessment growth. That's a good thing. When you have assessment growth that means everyone else can pay a little less because we have more money in the total levy. Remember, our costs go up on an annual basis. We have union contracts with 2% increases. We have state mandates. We got another $3 million in state mandates. So we have to pay for them."

Around 90% of the county budget is mandated by Albany and Washington. Poloncarz' budget shows how he will spend the other 10%, while Dixon said her priorities would be different splitting that 10%.

As moderators and reporters appeared to just sit back, Poloncarz and Dixon went at each other over a salary increase that takes effect Jan. 1 for the county executive, plus long-ago votes by Dixon and now Deputy County Executive Maria Whyte in the county legislature when Chris Collins was county executive.

There was a lot of heat about those altered photographs being used in TV and online ads by both sides. Poloncarz said Dixon has been making a lot of use of the doctored photos.

"She's been Photoshopping an ad against me on social media and digital for months now, in which she Photoshopped individuals outside of an ad, and now she has an ad in which she's manipulating video of me," he said. "She's changing the video and in that ad, she has a picture of a disgruntled, upset senior. That's actually stock footage from a senior in Australia. She's criticizing me for some of the same things she did."

Poloncarz' campaign is using doctored photographs of Dixon and former Rep. Chris Collins, although he said his campaign has genuine pictures of the two.

Dixon said there is a difference between the use of photo alterations by the two sides.
                 
"There is a huge difference. Okay?" she said. "Mark Poloncarz was at a groundbreaking with the governor and with, by the way, a convicted felon. What's missing in the photo that is online only, and not on TV, is the convicted felon. So I guess you could say, if you want to use the regular photo, then he's standing with a convicted felon."

That convicted felon is former State University top executive Alain Kaloyeros, a key figure in building the Riverbend complex in South Buffalo operated by Tesla. Collins is now an admitted felon facing felony jail time.

Asked about the county sales tax and whether it could be cut, Poloncarz said it would not just be the county losing in a sales tax cut.

"You're talking about the 8.75%, of which the first 4% goes to New York State and then the rest comes to Erie County," he said. "But Erie County doesn't keep the whole thing. We actually keep 56% of that 4.75%. We share the rest with the cities, towns, villages and school distracts and we actually, as a county, share more of our sales tax with our localities than almost every other county in Upstate New York."

Poloncarz said cutting that local share could lead to property tax increases. However, Dixon said the public deserves a share when things are good, because the sales tax is difficult for everyone.

"It hurts us. It does hurt us. And it's a shame that we got to that point back during the fiscal crisis of '04-'05," Dixon said. "But having said that, we try to cut taxes when we can. When we do have a year wheren we have a significant windfall from sales tax, we should use that opportunity to give residents a break, when we can - and we didn't. We've missed that opportunity."ie County has a relatively low property tax for New York because it has a relatively high sales tax.