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Cash reserves begin to add up

Andy Ouriel • Oct 7, 2013 at 2:00 PM

County officials expect to grow their savings or reserves account by 21 percent in the next five years.

The amount should balloon from $5.6 million today to $6.8 million by 2017, according to financial forecasts.

“With our debt at $99 million, our credit level is dependent on cash reserves,” Erie County commissioner Pat Shenigo said. “We will be able to maintain lower interest rates when borrowing money with the existing cash reserves.”

Furthermore, officials saved an additional $2 million in a “rainy day fund” specifically for emergency purposes.

The savings is even more impressive, when considering:

• Erie County’s budget totals $26 million. The budget covers day-to-day operations, including sheriff and court operations.

• Officials only projected one year-end deficit, totaling $9,000, from now through 2017. In all other years, commissioners project year-end surpluses ranging from $331,000 to $484,000.

• Commissioners haven’t laid anyone off or cut back on any services. “We continue to adjust our expenses with the cooperation of our employees and other elected officials,” Shenigo said. The philosophy of accruing savings radically differs from a mindset commissioners embodied just a few years ago.

In 2008, for instance, commissioners created a $2.5 million deficit and dwindled the reserves to $2.6 million — a shockingly low amount, considering they saved it up to $5.3 million in 2007. Since 2010, however, the bottom line has produced an extra $3 million in savings. “Any good government should run like a good business,” Erie County commissioner Bill Monaghan said. “We should run not to make a profit, but our revenues must meet our expenses.”

Tax hike

Commissioners, however, voted to temporarily increase the sales tax rate tacked onto taxable goods in Erie County. The 0.5 percent increase, raising from 6.75 percent to 7.25 percent, went into effect Tuesday.

An increase should create $7 million of revenue to address crumbling infrastructure throughout Erie County. “This is not going for wages,” Monaghan said. “This is not for fluff and other stuff. This is for things we need to fix up.” The tax boost should increase Erie County’s bottom line to $33 million in 2014. From 2015 through 2017, meanwhile, the yearly budget should hover around $26 million.

The sales tax is scheduled to be eliminated, dropping back to 6.75 percent in October 2014.

Lingering concerns

Commissioners remained concerned about several factors impacting the budget, chief among them, paying for expensive murder trials.

The average murder trial fully playing out costs local taxpayers $300,000 — and that’s before automatic appeals, which could elevate to $1 million split between state taxpayers.

County-based public defenders are preparing for two death penalty cases starting in the coming weeks: Michael Milner, accused of killing his girlfriend’s 3-year-old son; and Curtis Clinton, who allegedly murdered a woman and her two children.

Scheduling pay raises for employees, covering higher costs for health insurance and maintaining present-day staffing levels, are among the other budget challenges that still need worked through.

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