BUFFALO, N.Y. — Erie County will soon see a big investment, thanks to the American Rescue Plan.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who was joined by Congressman Brian Higgins and the some members of the Erie County Legislature, outlined a plan to use $89.2 million dollars in American Rescue Plan funds (ARP).
Poloncarz says the funds will be used to "Reinvest in Erie's Neighborhoods and Employ our Workforce (RENEW). The county will use the $89.2 million in funding from the ARP, as well as $35.8 million in New York State aid that had been restored, after the federal government bailed the state out of it fiscal deficit.
Under the plan tens of millions of dollars will be used to improve county parks, and for water and sewer projects, as well as improvement sand renovations to several county owned facilities.
Poloncarz wants to pay up to $6 million dollars in bonuses to county employees who worked during the pandemic and grow the size of county government by restoring and adding a combined total more than 140 county jobs
Adding additional workers and programs is something some local governments have expressed caution about, because those programs and positions will have to be funded in future years when there won't be any windfall from the federal government.
Poloncarz plans to pay those future costs with what he predicts will be increased collection of property taxes and sales taxes in the county.
"adding 142 new jobs doesn't sound like something we should be doing," said Erie County Legislator Joseph Lorigo, a conservative who leads the minority caucus in the county legislature.
Lorigo hoped the plan would include more direct tax relief to residents and and businesses, and said it sounds more like a relief package for the government and not the people it is supposed to serve.
"It's a lot of money it's a once in a generation investment into our community and what I didn't hear enough of today was talk about the economic recovery of the private sector. This money, at the end of the day, is taxpayer money that isn't in the pockets of hard working Americans," said Lorigo, who noted as well that since Poloncarz took office in 2012 county spending has risen $500 million.
While county lawmakers will have to approve the spending, most of them, like Poloncarz, are democrats which gives the spending package a better chance of being approved.
Here are some of the spending proposals the County Executive would like enacted.
• Capital Improvements: A number of upcoming or overdue capital projects are funded in the Plan, including an additional $5 million in pay-as-you-go highway funding, a new highway barn for the Harlem District, repairs to the façade of the District Attorney’s Office, and the SUNY Erie City Campus roof.
• Community Aid: The COVID-19 pandemic created financial challenges for many areas’ institutions. The Plan includes support for entities traditionally supported by Erie County including the Botanical Gardens, Convention Center, Naval and Servicemember’s Park, and the Workforce Investment Board as well as a wide array of support for improvements in various municipalities.
• Business Promotion: The federal government provided two additional rounds of Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) Loans (convertible to grants) in late 2020 and early 2021. With a strong economic recovery already underway, the Plan calls for a promotion-based approach to encourage local shopping and small business support, rather than direct cash assistance, with $2.08 million in small business promotion allocated in the Plan for this purpose.
• Park System Investment: The Plan makes major investments of approximately $14.3 million in Erie County parks to ensure they are in the best possible shape for residents and also invests in some long-overdue projects including the rehabilitation of the historic Wendt Beach mansion and stables. Among other targeted projects are Chestnut Ridge Casino accessibility improvements, several Chestnut Ridge Park comfort station renovations, restoration of the Como Lake Park Lighthouse, shelter and comfort station renovations at Ellicott Creek Park, restroom renovations at Grover Cleveland golf course, and shelter and amphitheater renovations at Emery Park, among other projects.
• Sewer and Water Investment: The Plan proposes using $31.3 million from the first tranche of ARP funding for projects related to the Erie County Sewer Districts (“ECSDs”). The infrastructure of the seven ECSDs includes over 5.8 million linear feet of sanitary sewer pipe, approximately 100 pumping stations, six water resource recovery facilities (i.e. wastewater treatment plants), and other appurtenances servicing portions of more than two dozen municipalities in Erie County. The county Division of Sewerage Management has identified significant needs for investment in this infrastructure throughout all seven ECSDs, with projects targeting infrastructure and operations enhancement, including energy reductions and pumping station eliminations; physical plant improvements at ECSD water resource recovery facilities and pumping stations; pumping and process equipment rehabilitation or replacements within numerous ECSD facilities; and sewer and manhole rehabilitation/replacement projects throughout all seven ECSDs.
The money will also fund added jobs in the county, including:
• Office of Health Equity: The Plan establishes staffing and budget lines for a new Office of Health Equity within the Erie County Department of Health. This Office is directly aligned with the stated goals of the ARP State and Local Recovery Fund’s mission to address disparities in Public Health Outcomes and will have a staff of 9 individuals including Epidemiologists.
• Position Restorations: Departments and independent offices submitted requests for restorations of some of the 287 cut positions, of which 107 were honored in the Plan. As the county’s financial situation improves and the economy continues to recover, providing departments and independent offices the resources they need to serve the public is a top priority that can be responsibly funded.
• New Positions: Based on lessons learned from the pandemic and to meet new operational goals, 26 additional new positions are included in the resolutions. 10 new positions are added to the Parks Department, along with new staff in the Division of Emergency Medical Services, Cancer Services Program, Purchasing, and the District Attorney’s Office.
• Budget Line Restorations: Many departments and independent offices included cuts to their budget lines as part of the 2021 adopted budget instructions. With the rapid return to normal operations, departments and independent offices have requested restorations to various lines in order to meet the public’s needs.
• Premium Pay for Essential Workers: Many county employees continued to report to work in person throughout the worst of the pandemic including the critical early days when little was known about the COVID-19 virus. In order to compensate these employees, the Plan provides a premium pay bonus of $5.00 per hour for every hour worked onsite from March 16th 2020 to June 26th 2020. Those dates align with the county’s shift to a work-from-home policy for non-essential personnel. Per federal guidance, only employees who earned less than 150% of the county’s median income in 2020 ($116,400), will be eligible for this premium pay. Based on initial calculations from the Department of Personnel, $6 million is set aside for these payments, which are aligned with U.S. Treasury Department guidelines for allowable use of these funds.
The RENEW Plan addresses areas of critical need in Erie County and will be instrumental in our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. We are using this funding to protect our most precious resource, Lake Erie, and also to improve our infrastructure and build a better, healthier and more equitable community. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we are seizing it to create a better future for Erie county residents,” said Poloncarz.