Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper told County Council Thursday that even though 2021 presents “tough” budgetary challenges for the county, there couldn’t be a better time to create a new position of a diversity and inclusion officer.
Dahlkemper believes the “essential” position would help the county enact meaningful policy and other changes that address racism. Erie County Council, at the urging of Dahlkemper and council Chairman Andre Horton, declared racism a public health crisis in Erie County in September.
On Thursday, Dahlkemper returned to council to speak about creating the position.
“I felt this was so important that I had to bring it forward,” she said. “I know that’s difficult to do when you’ve either got a tax increase or you’re going into the fund balance.”
In October, Dahlkemper proposed to offset a nearly $8 million projected hole in county coffers by cutting costs by more than $4 million and tapping the fund balance for $3.7 million in her 2021 budget.
The county has frozen hiring for all non-essential positions. The proposed starting salary of the diversity and inclusion officer position would be $43,733, plus benefits.
The position would be hired by the county’s human resources director. She or he would not work out of the county executive’s office. Dahlkemper said she wants to “institutionalize” the position, but having it under her office could subject the diversity and inclusion officer to the winds of political change. Dahlkemper noted she’s up for reelection next year and, even if she wins, would be term-limited after another four years in office.
She also said Thursday that she believes the position would pay for itself, comparing it to a wellness coordinator who has helped saved the county health insurance costs through wellness programs for county employees.
“It would be well worth the dollars we’re putting into it,” she said.
With the COVID-19 pandemic demanding the attention of her and other county employees, Dahlkemper said, the county needs someone whose sole task is addressing the issue of racism.
“Like anything, if you don’t keep your eye on the ball at all times it’s going to get dropped,” she said.
Horton, too, said the “timing couldn’t be better.” He has said that unless the county enacts policy change or invests in solutions, that all talk of solving the problem “is just rhetoric.”
Councilwoman Mary Rennie said she supports the creation of the position.
“We’ve got a long way to go to empowering people — that doesn’t mean handouts — that means empowering people,” she said.
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