Erie County Executive Brenton Davis on Wednesday vetoed several items in the recently passed 2023 county budget, rejecting cuts to his travel budget and economic development plans while cutting funds to Savocchio Park and other community projects.
In a letter obtained by the Erie Times-News, Davis informed council of his decision to veto 11 action sheets — or amendments to the proposed budget — that were introduced by council members and later approved by a council majority during the Nov. 23 budget vote.
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The vetoes don’t involve the Greater Erie Community Action Committee or the Cooperative Extension, both of which had their 2023 funding restored by council following a public outcry over Davis’ initial budget proposal.
County Council has 10 days to address the vetoes as per the Home Rule Charter. Five out of seven council members can override the county executive’s veto.
Davis vetoes cuts to travel, economic development initiatives
Davis vetoed an action sheet that reduced his travel budget from $25,000 to $15,000.
In the letter, he called travel a “currency for bringing positive change to our region,” and said it was inappropriate to have his administration return to council for additional travel funding next year because “it places council in the role of arbiter over my work.”
“This reduction interferes in my ability to lobby for state and federal funding, to market Erie County around the country, to learn new and better ways to operate and network with county and municipal leaders,” Davis wrote.
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In his budget proposal, Davis justified his travel expenditures by noting he’d be traveling to various conferences throughout the year, including with the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, the National Association of Counties and the Pennsylvania Economic Development Association.
Davis’ predecessor, Kathy Dahlkemper, had a travel budget of $5,250 in her final year in office in 2021.
Davis also vetoed an action sheet that reduced the travel budget of his new economic development department from $50,000 to $15,000.
The department, which Davis refers to as a “fusion cell,” aims to collaborate with Erie-area businesses and other counties and find opportunities to invest, leverage and maximize returns on American Rescue Plan dollars.
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“In order for the department to function effectively, it must meet with other professionals in the field, attend conferences and visit potential businesses in an effort to promote commerce or location,” he wrote.
Davis further vetoed an action sheet that reduced professional fees in the economic development department from $100,000 to $26,036 and another action sheet that reduced funding for economic development initiatives from $100,000 to $20,000 in a restricted account.
“The purchasing code acts as a control for expenses over $25,000, so this line is not an open checkbook by any means,” Davis said of the latter amount. “This action sheet is an overreach into the operations of an administrative department that requires agility. This action sheet places part-time council members as de facto cabinet members running the economic development operation.”
Davis cuts funding to Savocchio Park, Gaming Revenue Authority
From the American Rescue Plan budget, Davis vetoed an action sheet that allocated $750,000 to the Erie County Redevelopment Authority to administer toward the Savocchio Park project.
Davis called the project, which aims to create a community hub near East 16th Street and Downing Avenue. a “speculative investment” that didn’t show a significant return on investment.
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“To allocate such a large portion of the county’s ARPA dollars into a fish farm that may only yield a dozen jobs is imprudent,” Davis wrote. “I have the utmost confidence in the work of the Erie County Redevelopment Authority and their partners but in the final analysis, these valuable funds could be more impactful elsewhere.”
Davis also vetoed an action sheet that allocated $3 million to the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority for its Building a Better Future Program, which provides grants to community projects throughout the county.
Davis said the $3 million allocation was decided “without much debate” and removes the county’s ability to make its own funding decisions.
He also vetoed a $737,500 allocation to ECGRA to fund the Beehive Network, insisting he’d rather give the funds directly to the Beehive Network than having ECGRA administer them.
Davis also vetoed $30,000 in gaming funds to MECA, which provides services to those with mental and physical disabilities, along with other community services.
Davis said MECA was not up to date with its financial reporting and that “their record of accomplishment in delivering services is poor.”
“Other well-funded agencies, including Erie County Care Management, already perform MECA’s stated mission with much more efficiency,” he wrote.
Davis also vetoed three action sheets that each eliminated a position in his administration: a recruitment and diversity position in the Human Resources Department, a new deputy director position in the Tax Claim and Revenue Office and an IT position in the Department of Human Services.
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Restored expenditures will cost $433,166
Altogether, Davis said the 11 vetoes — and the restored expenditures — will require an additional $433,166 from the fund balance.
Joe Maloney, a financial advisor who’s helped County Council with budgetary matters for nearly 40 years, has voiced concern the county is deficit spending and plugging a roughly $7 million deficit with one-time funding sources.
Maloney told the Times-News in an earlier interview that tax increases or drastic spending cuts may become necessary in upcoming budgets.
Davis, in his letter, pushed back against suggestions that county expenditures are outpacing revenues and said the county General Fund is on pace to have another positive year.
“Erie County is financially healthy and any interpretation to the contrary is simply not factual,” he wrote.
Will County Council override the vetoes?
All 11 action sheets were approved by at least five members of County Council. That means if every council member maintains their positions, council has enough votes to override all 11 vetoes.
However, some council members are not committing to their earlier positions.
Councilman Charlie Bayle, a Republican, voted to restore funding to MECA during the Nov. 23 budget vote but now says he may vote against it after receiving additional information. He also said he’s rethinking his support of the ECGRA action sheets and considering whether it’s more effective to have the county disperse that money instead of ECGRA.
Councilman Jim Winarski, a Democrat, told the Times-News he is open for discussion.
“We will review the administration’s recommendations and go from there,” he said. “Maybe some adjustments or changes are possible and maybe not.”
Council Chairman Brian Shank, a Republican, told the Times-News he will not disclose his positions until the final vote.
Councilmembers Mary Rennie and Terry Scutella, both Democrats, said they will vote to override the vetoes.
“Mr. Davis and his so-called economic development group has already broken all records for spending money faster than taxpayers can open their wallets,” Rennie told the Times-News. “Now with these vetoes, he’s demanding that we put even more public money we don’t have into the hands of people who have no idea what to do with it. I don’t think so.”
Scutella added that most of the action sheets will require multiple votes to switch in order for the vetoes to pass, and that residents “would be curious” to know why these members had a change of heart.
Councilmembers Andre Horton and Ellen Schauerman could not be immediately reached for comment.
Here is the Nov. 23 council vote breakdown for all 11 action sheets:
- Reducing travel budget of county executive: 6-1, Bayle disapproved
- Reducing travel budget of economic development department: 7-0
- Reducing professional fees for economic development department: 5-2, Shank and Bayle disapproved
- Reducing funding for economic development initiatives: 6-1, Bayle disapproved
- Restoring funding to Savocchio Park project: 6-1, Bayle disapproved
- Restoring funding to ECGRA for Building a Better Future program: 7-0
- Approving funding to ECGRA for Beehive Network: 7-0
- Restoring $30,000 to MECA: 7-0
- Eliminating position in Human Resources Department: 5-2, Scutella and Winarski disapproved
- Eliminating deputy director position in Tax Claim and Revenue Office: 7-0
- Eliminating IT position in the Department of Human Services: 7-0