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Monroe County Budget Becomes a Battleground

Patti Singer

Monroe County legislators voted 29-0 to approve the budget presented by County Executive Adam Bello, but it wasn’t that simple.

It still isn’t.

Before legislators voted on Dec. 8, two amendments to the $1.2 billion spending plan were introduced.

What followed was two days of back and forth between Bello and members of the legislature that eventually voted to override his vetoes of the amendments.

Bottom line for taxpayers: The county has a spending plan for 2021. Bello said the budget covers items in the transition report he commissioned when he was elected – such as diversity, early childhood supports, addressing opioid addiction.

But the dueling news conferences and statements risk deepening divides in the legislature and leaving voters wondering what to make of events at the County Office Building.

“The public is supposed to think there are some issues going on with the legislature,” said Ernest Flagler-Mitchell, head of the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus. “Depending on where you live, it’s going to have two different views. More suburbanites are going to say they’re wrong for overriding his veto. People in some of our districts are going to say, ‘We understand.’ ”

Republican Majority Leader Steve Brew introduced an amendment to create a $2.5 million Community Contingency Fund for the legislators to use on projects of importance to their constituents.

Flagler-Mitchell introduced an amendment that would restore jobs at the Board of Elections

All 15 Republican legislators, the four members of the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus and Democrat Vince Felder voted for the amendments. The other nine Democrats voted against the amendments.

Bello withheld his signature from the budget and on Dec. 10 he vetoed the amendments. On the same day, Democratic Board of Elections Commissioner Jackie Ortiz said she would ignore the amendment because state law does not give legislatures that kind of power over election boards and an appellate court has agreed.

But after Bello filed his objections to the budget on Dec. 10, Legislature President Dr. Joe Carbone called a special meeting at which the legislature overrode the county executive’s veto and adopted the budget as amended. The vote was 20-8. One legislator was absent.

According to the Democratic caucus, legislators had about 12 minutes of notice and there was no notice to the public.

That may have settled the budget, but not the war of words.

Each side refuted the other side’s version of events that led to the Community Contingency Fund. Bello decried what he called “politics as usual.” Republican leadership of the leadership bristled at what they said were mischaracterizations and hyper-partisanship by Bello.

Flagler-Mitchell said the fund came out of discussions among Bello, the Republican leadership, himself and Vince Felder.

Brew said the money for the contingency fund was from vacant positions and other sources. He said legislators could use the funds for needs that might otherwise go unmet. During the debate over the amendment, Legislator George Hebert gave the example of using a few thousand dollars to fund pilot programs for veterans. Flagler-Mitchell and Felder also said the fund could be used to benefit communities they said have not always benefited from the county budget.

During his news conference on Dec. 10, Bello said the legislators made a demand that he create the fund or the legislators would carve it out themselves. Carbone and Brew claimed Bello demanded a unanimous vote on the budget.

Carbone and Brew took issue with the characterization of the contingency fund as a slush fund in an election year. They said that if the money had been left in the budget, it would be akin to giving Bello such a fund. They also said the contingency fund would make it easier to fund community needs by providing flexibility. Bello said that if he had thought the legislature needed such a fund, he would have provided for it in the budget.

Carbone and Brew said there are safeguards for the contingency fund. A legislator has to make a formal request, which the legislator must approve. Then the county executive has to sign off. Brew said there would be a public accounting of where the money is going and that all legislators would have access to it. Bello expressed concern that it would be used in nonpartisan, nonpolitical ways.

Mikey Johnson of Save Rochester — Black Lives Matter confronts Monroe County Executive Adam Bello during a news conference Dec. 10 at the airport that Bello called to talk about the county budget. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

Bello’s news conference was in a room at the Greater Rochester International Airport. At the end, Mikey Johnson of Save Rochester-Black Lives Matter, confronted Bello on topics including distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine and opportunities for Blacks and Latinos to own businesses in their neighborhoods. Bello spoke with Johnson and the two shared a COVID-protocol elbow bump as they left.

As for the Board of Elections, the amendment would restore and rename positions. Flagler-Mitchell claimed that the plan submitted by the commissioners would have laid off two Black women who have a combined 30-plus years of county employment and given raises to two white women.

The amendment was proposed as legislators were getting ready to vote on the budget, and both Carbone and Brew said they did not know about it. There was a delay as the clerk emailed the document to legislators. After several minutes of discussion that included Ortiz, legislators voted 26-3 to end debate and move the amendment to a vote.

In a news release about the amendment, the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus called for Ortiz to resign.

Bello said the amendment is unlawful. State election law allows the Board of Elections, not a county legislature, to set the number of employees, assign duties and establish salaries and titles. The law has been upheld by the courts, Bello wrote in his objection to the amendment.

In her news conference, Ortiz said staffing decisions were based on the needs of the board and that nearly all employees at the board received pay raises in the new budget. She was accompanied by Deputy Commissioner Natalie Sheppard.

“The reality of ensuring equal pay for equal work was the fundamental reason for one of the changes so grossly mischaracterized,” she said. “As stewards of this entity, as women and persons of color, the corrections required commensurate with work output, experience and equal pay to people with the same title are ideals we take very seriously. Race was not a factor in this decision.”

Considering the position of state election law, it was not clear what the next steps would be regarding the amendment.