On April 2, 2021, Erie County celebrated its bicentennial anniversary, kicking off a year of celebration. This significant milestone is an opportunity for the community to reflect on the history, stories, and legacies of the many men and women who came before us.
The bicentennial of the County of Erie, New York undoubtedly leaves some local residents still wondering: we have cities, towns and villages – why do we need a county government too? What is it there for?
WHY DO WE HAVE A COUNTY?
The idea of counties traces back to our country’s history of, in various ways, following the form and substance of government in England. Nottingham had a sheriff. Erie County has a sheriff.
The original colonies had counties that were set up by England. As colonies became states in the late 18th century counties originally set up by the Crown were continued and expanded throughout the United States. In Louisiana they chose to call such governments “parishes,” and in Alaska these units of government are referred to as “boroughs”. (Connecticut and Rhode Island do not have counties.)
Counties often cover vast expanses of land with other smaller units of government included within their boundaries.
In the early days of New York State we had fewer but geographically much larger counties than exist today. What is now Erie County was originally part of Albany County. Subsequent subdivisions of Albany County created Niagara County in 1808. Then in 1821 Erie County was established out of part of Niagara County.
HOW ARE COUNTIES GOVERNED?
To govern counties in New York state law provided for boards of supervisors, consisting of representatives of the towns and cities located within the county. Erie County voters in 1960 added an elected county executive to be the chief executive.
After the county executive position was created the Board of Supervisors continued as the county’s legislative body, with the each town plus the cities of Lackawanna and Tonawanda having one representative on the Board, for a total of 27. The City of Buffalo, for county government purposes had 27 supervisors in districts throughout the city. The people representing Buffalo on the Board, unlike their suburban and rural colleagues, had no direct connection to Buffalo city government.
In the early 1960’s a United States Supreme Court case determined that legislative representation should be established on a “one person, one vote” basis. The ruling required that congressional seats be approximately equal in population. That standard filtered down to state legislatures and to local government legislative bodies as well.
That led, in 1967, to the creation of the Erie County Legislature as a successor to the Board of Supervisors, with districts approximately equal in population, but without any particular adherence to town and city governments or boundaries. Originally there were twenty legislators. That was later reduced to 17, then 15, and more recently to the current 11.
The State of New York has over the years assigned various administrative and criminal justice responsibilities to its 62 counties, in some cases through the State Constitution but generally by legislation. The laws come with guidelines about what needs to be done, but the details are generally left to the state government bureaucracy. Sometimes the state pays for all or most of the costs related to mandated services, but more often the funding does not follow the assigned responsibilities and the burden of funding state mandates that are imposed upon the counties falls on local taxpayers.
County programs that are mandated by state government include the county clerk’s office, including the auto bureau; the sheriff’s department, including the county’s holding center and correctional facility; the Board of Elections; the district attorney’s office; Medicaid and social services programs; and certain health services.
FUNCTION OF COUNTY GOVERNMENT
While there are some basic functions of county governments which are required in all counties, the counties also have some local “home rule” prerogatives about the day-to-day functions that they choose to carry out.
The 2021 Erie County budget totals $1.62 billion dollars in all operating accounts. That amount includes $349 million in sales tax revenues that the county collects and then distributes to cities, towns, villages, school districts and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. The largest portion of county revenues is from the sales taxes it collects for its own purposes, representing about one-third of the total budget. Property taxes produce approximately 25 percent of county revenues, with the remainder coming from federal and state aid and various fees.
In terms of annual spending, the heaviest load of state-created responsibilities is in the area of social services that provide a variety of assistance to local residents in some form of direct financial aid, financial aid for buying food, Medicaid health coverage and other services. This spending includes a total of $178 million as the county’s share of Medicaid costs plus an additional $134 million for other programs.
Over the past fifty-five years there has been a great expansion of social service programs, some of which emanated from Washington while other service requirements came from state directives. County governments usually have little to say about the programs although they pay for large portions of them and usually handle day-to-day administration.
Erie County government, by local determination, has also over the years decided to provide for an extensive highway department, with 1,200 lane miles of road, among the largest county road systems in the state; a series of nine county parks, two golf courses, and two beaches, along with the availability of recreational facilities; and a football stadium. The county got into the stadium business in the early 1970s when the City of Buffalo could no longer financially support the operations and maintenance of a stadium for the Buffalo Bills.
County government also conducts planning and various environmental services. It provides nearly 20 percent of the costs of operating the three-campus SUNY Erie community college system.
Along the way Erie County has grown into the largest and most preeminent local government in the area. Most recently the county, through its Health Department, has been responsible for the management of local efforts dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic through assistance with the enforcement of state policy directives, testing, contact tracing, and vaccinations, as well as the collection of local data about such activities.
Erie County government has grown considerably in the past two hundred years. In terms of programs offered and the population served, its role as the dominant local government will likely continue to grow.