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Blind date 

It's about accountability.

That's what some 30 residents told county legislators at their meeting on September 14. The speakers were opposing a Republican plan to move the county executive's deadline for submitting a budget from mid-October to mid-November. That would leave only a month for the legislature to deliberate on a budget and adopt it. And it would mean the budget wouldn't be released until after the November election.

The move was recommended by County Executive Maggie Brooks' Budget Advisory Team as a way to keep party politics out of the budget process. Critics say the reverse is true: that it will stifle healthy political dialogue and keep residents from knowing about the county's finances before they vote.

At Tuesday's legislature meeting, advisory committee co-chairs Robert Fischer and Louise Woerner spoke in favor of the change. But Chris Hilderbrant, Director of Advocacy at the Center for Disability Rights, summed up the prevailing mood of the other speakers: "I actually kind of like knowing what my elected officials are doing with the budget before the election," he said, "so I can boot the buggers out if so needed."

On the heels of a few dozen such speeches, Republican Majority Leader Bill Smith did not seek a vote at last week's meeting. "I think that legislators are entitled to hear from a broader and more representative cross-section of our community in this matter, and to allow for that I decline to move to lift it from the table," he said, ending the session.

Democratic Minority Leader Stephanie Aldersley was more cynical about Smith's move. "I certainly would like to believe that the public was heard," she says, "but I suspect that they didn't have the votes."

So what's at stake?

Democrats and other critics charge that delaying the budget date until after elections would prevent residents from making an informed vote in November. Politicians could make unpopular budget decisions with electoral impunity, they say.

Smith sharply disagrees. "It's a completely bogus argument," he says, since legislators aren't required to adopt a budget until mid-December. "The budget is not usually voted on until after the election," he says. "It's almost always a month to five weeks" before a budget vote is taken.

That would mean that the only politician who might benefit from the delay would be the county executive, who would not have to unveil an unpopular budget before an election. And that would be a campaign issue only once every four years, when the executive's term is expiring.

Not so, says Aldersley. "I've always had to take a position on the budget before election day," she says. Although the legislature usually acts on the budget after elections, media and constituents press legislature candidates for a position during the campaign --- and hold them accountable for their votes after it.

Aldersley predicts that the public won't like the next county budget. "I think that's part of why the Republicans want to move it to after the election," she says. "I think they want to raise taxes."

The possibility of service cuts could be what brought out many of the speakers Tuesday. Most were county employees (and their union leaders) or representatives from the county's social and human services community, some of which receive funding from the county.

Smith says such groups are partly to blame for bloated government spending. They lobby hard and effectively for unnecessary services, he says, for which the county foots the bill.

"From my perspective, that's almost a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on the budget submission date," says Smith of the measure's opponents.

But Aldersley contends that since tax hikes are unpopular, those groups actually stand to lose if the public has more time to react to the proposed budget. "These people [county employees, their unions, and social-service agencies] have nothing to gain by having the budget known by the public," she says.

Aldersley says her biggest beef with the proposal, though, is that it changes the balance of power between branches of government. The time available for the legislature to study the budget would be halved if the new date were accepted, she says. "It really puts a lot of power in the executive's hands," she says.

It takes about three weeks for constituents' feedback on the budget to trickle in, says Aldersley. Some local non-profits speaking at last week's legislature meeting echoed that, saying they needed time to analyze the budget before giving their comments to legislators.

Aldersley says she believes Republicans will convene a special meeting once they get enough votes within their own ranks to pass the proposal. They'll have to hurry. For the resolution to take effect this year, it would need to be passed soon: Brooks' next budget is due by the legislature's meeting on October 12.

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