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A divided county government sets the stage for a real budget 'dance' 

click to enlarge The Monroe County Office Building.

FILE PHOTO

The Monroe County Office Building.

Decades of one-party government has put Monroe County out of step with the typical choreography of crafting a county budget in New York.

The process in most large counties resembles a ritualized dance: The executive unveils a vision, and then the legislative and executive branches sway back and forth to whittle down the spending plan to a document both sides can accept.

But the Monroe County Legislature has been little more than a rubber stamp when it comes to approving the budget, forcing few if any amendments to the executive’s spending plan in most years.

That could change Tuesday, as the Republican-controlled Legislature convenes to hash out the details of a budget put forth by a Democratic executive for the first time in more than 30 years.

County Executive Adam Bello, the first Democrat to hold the office since 1991, has outlined a $1.2 billion budget for 2021 that essentially keeps spending flat amid a pandemic that has wreaked havoc on municipal coffers.

Republicans hold just a one-seat majority in the 29-seat Legislature, but five Democrats who have broken away from their party have shown a willingness to side with their GOP counterparts on some key issues, effectively giving the Republicans a veto-proof super-majority.

Four of them formed the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus, and have made demands that the Bello's plan be amended.
click to enlarge Legislator Ernest Flagler-Mitchell, leader of the county Legislature's Black and Asian Democratic Caucus, flanked by Legislator Calvin Lee, left, and Legislator Vince Felder, right. - PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • Legislator Ernest Flagler-Mitchell, leader of the county Legislature's Black and Asian Democratic Caucus, flanked by Legislator Calvin Lee, left, and Legislator Vince Felder, right.
The Monroe County Legislature’s reputation as a rubber stamp for the executive’s budget stemmed in large part from the groupthink of one-party government. But Monroe County was particularly notorious for being a wallflower when it came to the budget dance.

An analysis of budget processes during the administration of Republican Maggie Brooks, for instance, found that the Republican-controlled Legislature altered Brooks’s proposed budget plans about a dozen times during her three terms, reprioritizing less than $1 million out of nearly $13 billion in spending.

By contrast, legislatures in other big counties, including Erie and Onondaga, routinely make several changes to executive budgets that shift around millions of dollars annually. Previous one-party governments in Albany and Rensselaer in recent years have had knock-down, drag-out fights over their budgets.

The dances in those counties this year have been somewhat subdued, however.

On Monday, the Democratic-controlled Albany County Legislature unanimously approved a $719 million budget, although legislators made considerable adjustments to the original spending plan proposed by the Democratic county executive.

In Monroe County, Bello’s proposed budget would, among other things:

• Merge the county’s Economic Development and Workforce Development departments, a move that Bello said would help connect employers and employees.

• Fund the county’s new Improving Addiction and Coordination Team (IMPACT), which is meant to help address the opioid crisis and expand county addiction services.

• Provide $472,881 to fund the county’s new Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which is tasked with helping county departments improve recruitment and retention efforts, improve the county’s minority- and women-owned business enterprises selection procedures, and investigate internal complaints around harassment, discrimination, hostile work environment, and unequal treatment.

• Add three new health services coordinator positions to the county’s Early Intervention program for young children. It would also add a customer service provider position to the program, which would be responsible for helping parents with accessing related services, such as transportation for pre-school special education students.

• Cut down on the sale of delinquent property tax liens to raise revenue, with the goal of eliminating the practice entirely by 2022.

• Eliminate the so-called “snow tax,” a special fee assessed to towns for snow and ice removal that was put in place in 2013 during the Brooks administration. Suburban residents paid roughly $5 million a year through the fee; the cost of snow and ice removal will now be paid out of the general budget and tax levy.

CITY News Editor Jeremy Moule will cover the budget vote Tuesday evening. Follow him on Twitter at @jfmoule and CITY at @roccitynews for details.
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