The Taxing Last Resort

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County Executive Maggie Brooks said the county wanted help, and convened the full Monroe County Legislature for answers.

She got 39 answers. And in the politest of ways (for what is Brooks if not polite) she told the lawmakers the answers really didn’t add up to much.

It’s easy to see why. The answers were small potatoes. The Brooks administration found that they could apply only a fraction of what was proposed. Deputy Majority Leader Jeff McCann’s idea to "increase collaborations with other municipalities" might get as much as $2.5 million. Minority Leader Carla Palumbo had an interesting idea to vastly simplify the court system in Monroe County by merging various lower courts, such as County Court and Family Court. This would create a so-called "district court." It would maybe save as much as $2.5 million. You had other smaller ideas like sharing messenger services for departments or auditing utility costs. But as Brooks’ team so politely put it… even if you do these proposals, you’re still left with a nearly $100 million shortfall in the 2007 and 2008 budget years.

And, of course, that’s because the real answers mean real pain. Shutting down or scaling back services. And no elected leader wants feel the blow-back of the electorate after putting up ugly choices like cutting back on public park hours or shutting down public library branches… and the like. That would take a certain amount of political fortitude that just seems in short supply these days – from the local to the national level.

So what’s left? Well Brooks could follow behind Mayor Bob Duffy, holding out the large tin cup and banging it down loudly in Albany. But that only seems to work for the cities in our state. Counties never get the same size of direct contribution from the state.

So could the answer be the one that every elected official, Democrat or Republican, feels compelled to say is the "last resort?" Could it be a tax hike?

Property taxes? Not on your life. The only lasting promise Brooks made in her 2003 campaign was she would not raise property taxes. And certainly not after having essentially mutated the promise from not raising the amount gathered up in property taxes (which were precisely what she said during the ’03 campaign) to not raising the property tax rate.

Sales taxes? Well, it seems more likely now doesn’t it? It’s been done before to pull the county out of fiscal mire (you remember Bob King in the early 1990’s selling that tax hike like a used car).

And there is Erie County as an example. They approved an increase of the sales tax… from 8.25 percent to 8.75 percent. They figure on pulling in $60 million in the initial year. Oh, I know… I know… we’re nowhere near as bad as Erie County, local Monroe County leaders will say. And yet, a Buffalo News story from last month (excerpted here by the, reported that 47 counties asked the state to extend sales tax rates higher than the local 3 percent base.

I’d say we’re closer than you might think.

And in the end, all these budget forums (there are citizen budget workshops coming up soon) may be setting the stage for something bigger. Maybe we will see some political resolve and watch savings come from far-reaching, but controversial cuts and consolidations.

But why does it seem like the answer will add up to another bite from the purchases you make. I’m just saying that in the politest possible way.