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Candidates differ on fiscal approach

Richard Morrisroe

(This is the first of a four-part debate between candidates for Chautauqua County Executive.)

The two candidates for Chautauqua County executive both agree that the county must be fiscally responsible as COVID-19 continues to affect both the national and local economies.

If elected, however, their approaches toward doing so would be different.

Interim County Executive PJ Wendel, a Republican appointed by his former colleagues in the county Legislature in January after George Borrello’s election as state Senator, released his anticipated budget during a Sept. 23 presentation. In it, Wendel proposed a slight tax decrease despite a 3% increase in the tax levy. His proposed tax rate is $8.41 per $1,000 assessed valuation.

“More so, the levy has gone up based on inflation,” Wendel said during a debate with challenger Richard Morrisroe. “Surprisingly, or factually, since 2014 we’ve reduced taxes in the county. From 2014 to now, we’ve reduced taxes five of the seven years with this year potentially being the sixth of the seven years. These are based on the facts. That is based on the budget team as the facts have been presented to them.”

PJ Wendel

The budget does not rely on any of the county’s fund balance, leaving a projected fund balance of 5.3% by the end of 2021. Wendel is also predicting the same amount of sales tax originally adopted for 2020, which was $42,066,707.

“We’re ahead of where we were last year and that’s after an eight-week shutdown of our economy,” he said.

Expenses for personal services is up 5.1%, due to the recent contractual agreement with Civil Service Employees Association Local 6300, the county’s largest bargaining unit.

“Our budget takes into account all our salaries, increases, step increases,” he said. “I feel our budget is sound. We’re going to look for ways to reduce our budget. We’re going to look for ways to be a more efficient, effective government. Whatever way we can lower taxes will be beneficial but we have to watch that because it does get a razor’s edge because we do have to get that fund balance back up over the years. In earlier years, we used several million dollars of fund balance, that’s something we have not done and my pledge is to have a structurally sound budget when I present that to the taxpayer.”

Morrisroe, the Democratic candidate and current Dunkirk city attorney, called Wendel’s “path of more spending and higher taxes” as not sustainable “if we’re going with the status quo.”

“The county had issues before COVID-19,” said Morrisroe, citing the loss of employers in Jamestown, Dunkirk and Fredonia that have hurt citizens.

“We have a declining tax base and a declining population,” he said. “Now with the pandemic and the shutdowns, we know that we don’t know why. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the national economy. … that ‘V bounce’ we had from about May to about July is now going and the second half of the ‘V’ is starting to flatten. That’s nationally. That’s not to say that’s exactly what’s happening in Chautauqua County, but generally, we track what’s going on elsewhere.”

Morrisroe also cited the uncertainty of state aid.

“At the state level, and I know the county is feeling this as well as the state as well as the city of Dunkirk,” he explained. “All dedicated state aid that we’ve budgeted for in 2020 is frozen. We don’t now when it’s going to unfreeze. It’s an environment that there’s a lot that we don’t know and we don’t control.”

Morrisroe also pushed back on a county government that has been controlled by Republicans since 2006.

“Usually it’s the Democrats that get the reputation for tax and spend, tax and spend,” he said. “But Republicans have been in power in this county for the last 14 years — the county executive’s seat and they’ve had a supermajority in the legislature for a long time.”

He added, “We’ve sold county assets and burned through the cash. Our revenue balance and fund balance is relatively low. It’s above, as I saw in his presentation, where we need to be but it’s on the low end of that scale and what’s recommended. We’ve raised property taxes in the last couple of years and we’ve raised the sales tax rate in the last couple of years. It’s not sustainable.”

Morrisroe also credited Borrello for negotiating the CSEA contract and said that it should be re-examined because circumstances have changed.

“That contract was negotiated pre-COVID,” he said. “The world has changed. It may mean sitting down at the table with CSEA officers again and saying, ‘Let’s look at this together.’ It may be worth that conversation because it may mean a need for rolling furloughs. There may be a need for staff cuts. There may be a need for deferment of increases.”

His solution would be to make any reductions in those negotiations commensurate with his own reductions as well as engage in a department-by-department review.

“What I would do is say, ‘If you’re going to take a hit, then I’m going to take a hit,'” Morrisroe said. “I think 20% cut across the board is a good starting point but it’s not enough. I think you have to do a deeper dive into each department in what needs to go and what needs to stay and what can be changed and what can be altered.”

Wendel defended the CSEA contract, noting that, “One of the things we’re devoted to is not losing our members and our employees,” and explaining that “very hard cuts” were made in April and May.

“We’ve cut $4 million from the budget already,” he said. “We added $1.1 million with our furlough. We could have laid our employees off, but what would that have been? You go back to the instability of our economy. By going into that furlough, they maintain their health insurance, they maintain their seniority and when they come back that saved us $1.1 million.”

“I hear what he’s saying and all I’m saying is there’s a lot of variables we don’t control,” Morrisroe said. “We have to exercise caution because there’s a lot we don’t control and this pandemic isn’t over. It’s not over at all. The key thing is that if people don’t feel safe, we could open up everything today. If they don’t feel safe, the numbers going into the malls, the number going into the gyms, the numbers going into the theaters are not going to be what they were pre-pandemic until people feel safe.”

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