Erie Needs to Stop Kicking the Can
County Executive's proposed budget should spur meaningful conversation about Erie's future.
Few things divide or unite citizens quite like taxes. So let's talk about the recently proposed countywide tax increase.
Some call it absolutely necessary and long overdue to get us moving in the right direction. Others call it political suicide. As with most extremes, the truth lies somewhere in between.
Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper's 2016 budget proposal calls for a tax increase of 0.45 mills – or what amounts to a 9 percent hike in property taxes – that would generate $6 million in revenue for county government. If percentages and mills aren't the way you like to keep track of your dollars and cents, the proposed increase amounts to $45 more per year on a property valued at $100,000.
But back to the extremes for a moment.
Those subscribing to the latter axiom likely take solace in the fact that the last rise in county taxes came under Mark DiVecchio's leadership in 2010. Since then, we've gotten by without increased taxpayer contributions, and Erie County's been – at least on the surface and at the bottom line – okay.
Now back to increases.
This isn't the first time Dahlkemper's looked to her constituents to contribute more than in the past. Last year she proposed a 0.35 mill property tax increase to add $4.6 million to the county's bottom line, which would tack $46 onto the yearly county tax bill of a homeowner with a $100,000-valued lot. Or, for percentage enthusiasts, what amounts to a 7 percent increase. Rather than approve the budget as-is, County Council – the ultimate arbiters of the County's final bottom line – cut $400,000 and tapped the general reserves for $2.7 million to stave off the hike.
Reasons for the 2015 proposed increase?
"A countywide public safety radio system. New employees. And an unwillingness to use reserve funds to pay operational costs," according to Kevin Flowers' Oct. 2, 2014 Erie Times-News coverage.
Reasons for the 2016 proposed increase? Ask Dahlkemper and the list begins the same. But this time it features the apropos cliché of we've merely kicked the can farther down the road … which is followed by the caveat that we can't afford to keep punting when the proverbial game's on the line and we're behind on the scoreboard.
Overused sports metaphors aside, I hate bloat and waste as much as the next person and do at times wonder if we could reduce the number of certain jobs, spend just a little less on a particular initiative, and get leaner, trimmer, fitter so that we tug our collective belt to the next notch. But I also like knowing that roads are paved, students are educated, and those needing assistance are getting it.
At the end of the day, we're only as strong as the help, hope, and hospitality we provide to those most in need. So yes: I'm pro-taxes because taxes are our investment in ourselves.
When the proposed budget calls for an increase in funding things like Emerge 2040 – the result of a three-year community-wide plan tasked with evolving Erie into the best 21st century version of itself, and things like the Summer Jobs Program – which has proven successful and ensures that students have access to employment opportunities at a young age so that they gain the skills necessary to enter the workforce productively and confidently, I want to make that investment. I like to believe that ultimately makes a better Erie for all of us choosing to live here. Further, I'm excited about new things, like the potential maker-space-esque growth and development accounted for at the Blasco Library and the proposed addition of a grant writer to seek funds outside our county walls.
Could we spread 9 percent out over a couple of years to lessen the impact? It's likely. Regardless, though, our challenges and needs will continue to grow and evolve.
For what it's worth, Frank Zappa once said, "Without deviation from the norm, progress isn't possible." Though developer and planner weren't on his résumé, an applicable truth exists here: We can't expect improvement without some sort of investment.
How we go about that is up for debate until Dec. 1, when Council has to pass a budget. Now is the time for us all to begin the very serious, very difficult conversations of where, how, and why Erie moves forward.
Frankly, there's no better place to start than a 9 percent increase, 627-page budget to ignite a very serious, very difficult dialogue about the future of Erie and our investment in ourselves. After all, one has to wonder just how many more times we can kick that can before we run out of road.
Ben Speggen can be contacted at bSpeggen@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @BenSpeggen.