County executives battle over budget questions
Editor’s Note: This is the third of four articles on a debate recently held by the newspaper. Candidates were given a series of four questions on pressing issues facing Chautauqua County one week ahead of time, and were given the opportunity to provide their answers in a closed, debate-style setting. The third question deals the budget, namely spending priorities and how they would be paid for.
Budgeting issues are often at the forefront of politics and questions were posed to each candidate for county executive by the newspaper regarding the matter. With many county departments looking for extra staff members and more, where will each candidate focus their attention and how will they pay for it?
MIKE FERGUSON — “A New Vision”
“If you’re specifically asking about the county prosecutor’s and the county defender’s office, if drugs are one of our top problems and has become pandemic, then it would seem to me that it makes more sense to hire additional prosecutors to put these dealers and manufacturers in jail as opposed to defending their rights, which they violated,” Ferguson said. “If you’re asking about police and fire, I would look at shared services much more carefully than I would consider cuts to the men and women that put their lives on the line each and every day.”
Ferguson said he does agree with some consolidation of these services, but realizes that the rural nature of Chautauqua County makes many of them necessary.
“If it’s your house on fire, you really don’t care about how much your community saved while you’re waiting for a police or fire department (to come) along,” he said. “We’ve got great professional services in both fire and police, and we have a dwindling volunteer fire base that needs support. To answer your question again, where do you cut – certainly not in those areas.”
But, every position that is being asked for, Ferguson said, should be looked at with two things in mind: keeping people safe and being efficient and effective.
“Our taxes were too high and a barrier to growth, but at the same time, we need to provide the services that our communities demand as they need them,” Ferguson said. “I’m confident that the inefficiencies that we have developed over decades, the business as usual, can provide that tax relief we need without wholesale cuts that cost good jobs and necessary services, and in some cases take away identities of communities.”
Ferguson said his experience gives him the advantage of bringing private sector knowledge and success to the government without the burden of “typical politics” weighing him down. He said his perspective will provide a new vision, which will allow him to focus on efficiency and effectiveness as opposed to cuts for the sake of cutting.
GEORGE BORRELLO – “Lean And Mean”
Borrello said his priorities are improving the criminal justice system and improving prosecution. He said that will require more district attorney assistants and public defender assistants. Refocusing and strengthening economic development is also important, as well as reducing layers of government.
He said he also has an idea of how to pay for the priorities.
“We need to run things more like a business,” Borrello said. “As far as I know, I’m the only person that has either run or held office as county executive that started his own business from nothing, and made it into a successful business. You don’t get to that point without knowing how to watch your budget.”
He said it is important to be “lean and mean,” economically.
“I really want to scrub the budget in a lot of ways,” Borrello said. “We do a great job on (the) Audit and Control (committee), but we have a kind of limited access to resources when we’re looking at things. I’ve always subscribed to the bushel full of pennies theory: that is a penny by itself isn’t much, but a bushel full is a decent amount of money.”
Small changes over a variety of areas in the budget can put together the funds necessary to fund the priorities. It will take leadership, Borrello said, but it can be done.
“A lot of times people want to mealy-mouth their way around things and are afraid of hurting people’s feelings, and I’m sorry – this is business,” he said. “Yes, it’s government, and it has to be run in a business-like manner.”
Also, there are jobs that have not been filled in a while, and the goal is to look at them and see which ones are still relevant and necessary.
“Do we really need that position?” Borrello said. “Obviously, that department is functioning without that person. We’re not talking about eliminating a person’s job, that job hasn’t been filled.”
There are so many jobs that go unfilled, Borrello said. In Fredonia now, one of the initiatives that exists as part of the $20 million MCEC grant is to do a co-op of water and wastewater treatment plants so the county can share the supervisors. At the moment, Borrello said there is a person who can’t retire because no one is available who can pass the test and replace that person.
“This is not about sacrificing safety, this is not about sacrificing services,” he said. “This is about eliminating bureaucracy and dysfunctional government and still providing a better, more efficient way.”
At this time, when a person dials 911, Borrello said there is a bigger problem with someone showing up because there aren’t enough volunteers. He said there needs to be a consolidation because there is too much duplication of equipment, and too much duplication of services. However, it will be done in a “prudent manner,” where people in the communities have to be on board.
FERGUSON RESPONDS – “Creative Vision and Leadership”
“I agree with leadership,” Ferguson said. “I don’t believe budgets need to be balanced by selling county assets that could be valuable over the course of time, and I think we saw that last week with the selling of the South County Office Building. My fear is that this is going to be proposed with our airports, it’s going to be proposed with our landfill.”
Ferguson said when the county or government loses control, it’s not just the landfill at risk, but also the citizens and the lake, referring to recent studies where “fracking infested waste” was brought in to Erie County landfills.
“Right next to that landfill is our watersheds,” he said. “So that’s my fear. Where does it stop and why is it necessary to use that to balance budgets? I believe creative vision and leadership is the way to go.”
Ferguson said he has had experience taking over businesses that were struggling, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses and putting people in places where they can make changes. With the business becoming profitable, he said he moved on to the next project to do the same thing for others.
“But, using creative and new sources of revenue,” Ferguson said. “When we ran the Jammers, we looked at ‘How is a minor league team run?’ and ‘What do the biggest and the best do?'”
With those who question his lack of experience in government, in each of those situations, Ferguson said he had to deal with the state government, city, federal, village and county government officials and offices throughout each phase of his career. When it comes to making those decisions, the county needs to work at what works best and not sell for the sake of selling, he said.
“We’ve had one of the biggest tax increases with regards to sales tax just in order to keep our property taxes low,” Ferguson said. “But, we didn’t match it dollar for dollar in that particular instance. So, you’re looking at a fix structure deficit by raising taxes – that’s not the way to run an efficient and an effective government, and I believe that true leadership will see through that and bring more creative revenue streams; new revenue streams to the county budget in order to balance that budget without having to risk our future.”
BORRELLO RESPONDS – “Here’s The Facts”
“This is obviously where we’re going to have to show where our differences are,” Borrello said. “We brought this up before about the sales tax increase and at one point, you called it the ‘largest tax increase in the county history,’ which is really just not true. Here’s the facts – in 2006, our sales tax rate was 8.25 percent. Today, it’s 8 percent.”
Borrello said the former figure was under Mark Thomas’ administration. In 2006, the property tax rate was $9.49 per $1,000, as compared to $8.48 per $1,000, he said.
“If you applied just the inflation rate for those 11 years to the property tax rate, that $9.49 that it was in 2006 should actually be $11.44 per $1,000 in today’s dollars,” Borrello said. “We’re actually running government for $3 per $1,000 less and the sales tax rate is lower. The largest sales tax increase we had was back in 2005 when they increased it from 7 percent to 8.25 percent.”
When it comes to the South County Office Building, Borrello said it was a good business decision.
“Mike, you said that your concern was if somebody had to repair the roof, that it wouldn’t be done at a prevailing wage,” he said. “That’s not the right thinking. That building costs the county $800,000 a year in maintenance. On top of that, that building will now be back on the property tax rolls.”
Borrello said the city of Jamestown is up against its constitutional tax limit at the moment.
“It’s gone so far and it’s so desperate for revenue that they’re actually taking property from a neighboring community,” he said. “That’s not being a good neighbor. That’s not going to help with regionalism. That’s not going to help with solving the problem. So you want to talk about one-time fixes – that’s a one-time fix for sure.”