Tag Archives: Erie County Executive Chris Collins

All Quiet Along This Front

21 Sep

Anyone else notice that nobody is complaining about anything anymore?

Drawing courtesy Sven Yrvind at http://www.yrvind.com

Let me be more specific. While Washington is more shrill than ever, we here in Buffalo and Western New York seem to be more sedate. We’ve followed Jules’ advice and chilled this mother out. Not hope (false or not) for the future, but not resignation and apathetic despair either. Just . . . even keel. Whether this break is a lull, a calm before the storm, or more long lasting is impossible to know. But locally, nobody seems to be too riled up, and this is in stark contrast to the last decade.

Maybe it’s because the lightning rod projects have finally drawn towards a conclusion. Mark Croce, by all accounts, is pouring real money into the Statler and bringing it back. That was the last item in the Silver Bullet checklist of Buffalo. The Peace Bridge second span is dead. The Seneca Casino downtown is morphed into a smaller project, sans hotel, that seeks to embrace businesses in the growing neighborhood. Canalside is poking along, and most citizens seem more interested in enjoying sunshine on the water and a new concert series than get worked up over a couple hundred grand to over-priced Fred Kent and company. The Medical Campus adds new buildings every couple months, and UB 2020 has passed in an abbreviated form; the ink had barely dried on Cuomo’s signature and already the silence was deafening from all sides, for and against. Even Benderson’s “lifestyle center” on Maple died with a whimper. The next Silver Bullet checklist is currently being drawn up – for now it only includes new bridges across the Buffalo River to connect the Inner and Outer Harbors. Perhaps the collective bile will rise as new projects are added. 

Maybe it’s because the instigators have faded away, in victory, defeat or irrelevance. Paladino has mostly kept his turds out of punchbowls since his drubbing. Williams is out as Buffalo Schools Superintendent, Simpson is gone from UB, and Quinn from the ECHDC. I haven’t heard Tim Tielman’s name in months, and Goldman faded as quickly as the paint job on the Adirondack chairs. Esmonde took a (partial) buyout and no one except the insiders care if Lenihan follows the governor’s career advice or not.

Maybe it’s because shoes have yet to drop. The HSBC pullout from Buffalo seemed inevitable earlier in the year. Now First Niagara has a branch network and hockey arena to its name, and the first round of global HSBC cuts have passed us by unscathed. The tower HSBC occupies is in danger of emptying (Phillips Lytle moving two blocks if nothing else), but the main leases there expire in several years.

Maybe it’s because our political season is suddenly a snooze fest. Only six weeks out, Erie County residents may be excused for forgetting there is a County Executive race this November. In contrast to Senator Mark Grisanti’s race for a district that covers roughly the same territory, the recent special election to replace Sam Hoyt in the Assembly passed a week ago with barely a whisper. The local Tea Party groups stopped holding rallies at the waterfront, and no highway tolls are currently on the chopping block. We downsized our Erie County legislature with the help of a judge, and Maria Whyte finds herself stumping for upgrades to the county clerk’s office (Kathy Hochul presided over the Dark Ages?) instead of lighting evil fat cats on fire. We have a Governor who earns the begrudging respect of everyone in the room, and through pragmatic competent leadership, Albany’s tone has actually changed. Alan Bedenko’s coverage of petty politics in Clarence is as insightful as it is ordinary. A fascinating glimpse into crumb gathering to be sure, and effective at the ballot box, but the fish are so much smaller than what we’re used to.

Maybe it’s because no one of the above really matters all that much. It was a beautiful summer, the Bills are 2-0 (and so is my fantasy football team), and Terry Pegula has Sabres fans walking in a perpetual blissful dream world. The worst of the catholic church closings have passed, there are more urban gardens every year, the roads are full of construction workers (read: jobs), and Gordon Biersch has landed at the Galleria. Small improvements, from Riverfest Park to Buffalo River dredging to three-story brownstone renovations all over the city, are quietly creating a swelling avalanche of pebble-sized bits of good news.

Artwork by Christopher Carter

So the Jersey Livery renovation hasn’t happened yet. Neither has the Wingate Hotel of Doom. No one is chaining themselves to piles of bricks to thwart the wrecking ball. Instead, orphanages that I considered lost causes are undergoing rehab in forgotten corners of the city. The Tonawanda Powertrain workers are back, and GM is dumping in nearly a billion in new investment. The Great Recession was bad in Buffalo, but our 7.6% unemployment rate and tiny housing price growth is the envy of the nation.

Has this placated us? It’s not like every problem has gone away. We still have a caretaker, over-politicized mayor. We still have a shrinking population and blighted neighborhoods. A rash of industrial fires in residential neighborhoods have spurred the Clean Air Coalition of WNY to expose how little we know about air quality during major accidents.  But I hear little generally from the activist community locally. I’m not being asked to attend rallies to save anything, stop anything, or make anyone change their mind. 

Why? What do you think? Has the tone changed or have I missed it? I look forward to input and comments.

I Have No Idea What Is Going On

24 Aug

If everything went according to plan, I am just now getting back from four days of near complete isolation from the outside world. I’m writing this the week before, and posting it for today’s edition for my weekly local/political column. Looking forward six days into the future, I probably smell bad, desparately need to change my underwear, am unshaven, have a thrown out back from sleeping on the ground, and am exhausted from paddling and camping with my sons.

I love stepping out of the hurly burly for brief periods. Anything could have happened. Did Obama start a new war? Did the Chinese make a surprise landing on the moon? Which hurricane formed and hit? Did Lloyd win the Food Network contest? Who did Alan fight with on Twitter? You know, the important stuff.

Being so out of it, what’s a writer to do?

Easy. First, slap up a classic meme.

Second, lay out a “deep thought.” Assuming the “campaign” is going as it had been, consider this: every day no one talks about the Collins/Poloncarz race, the closer Collins is to victory. Discuss.

(Author’s note: if the race blew up while I was gone, this will seem silly. But let’s see what happens.)

Bob McCarthy, Errand Boy?

25 Jul

On Sunday, Bob McCarthy did his usual water carrying for local Republicans by writing a story they’ve been shopping for weeks. The story?  That Mark Poloncarz, Democratic Party nominee for Erie County Executive has received support from labor unions.


I know Bob didn’t write the headline, but it is misleading. “Poloncarz criticized over help from union” Really? From where is this “criticism” coming? Failing to demonstrate the source of the “criticism” implies that it sources from the community, not Collins’ spokesman Stefan Mychajliw.

A proper headline would be “Collins criticizes Poloncarz over labor support”.

On to the substance of the article…

Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union paid Poloncarz campaign manager Jennifer Hibit almost $10,000 for a two-month period beginning in May, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state Board of Elections. Local 1199 is one of the most powerful and influential unions affecting state government policies. While it does not represent any county employees, the campaign of incumbent Republican Chris Collins charges the highly unusual arrangement inserts Poloncarz into a position laden with potential conflict.

The above paragraph is why other reporters passed on this story several times. There is no conflict of interest because 1199 does not represent any county employees. The end. Bringing it up only serves as a launching point for the Collins campaign talking point which follows…

“This is an indication that Mark Poloncarz cares more about special interests than the taxpayers of Erie County,” said Collins campaign spokesman Stefan Mychajliw. “Those special interests will want something in return for their very significant donation.”

And just how will they go about doing that when, again, they don’t represent any county employees? Of course, it’s not about that at all, it’s about attacking labor in general and deflecting from substantive issues.

Does Collins really want to have a conversation about owing “special interests”? Just this year, local law firm Hiscock & Barclay donated $25,000 to the Collins For Our Future Fund and has earned quite a handsome return on their investment while doing work for the County Executive as he continually attempts to govern Erie County through the court system.

By October of this year (2010) Erie County had paid about $135,000 to the law firms Hiscock and Barclay and Mattar and D’Agastino defending the county in a class-action lawsuit alleging more than 30,000 Holding Center inmates were illegally strip-searched from 2001-04.

The conflicts of interest with Collins and his donors are everywhere and I’ll be posting about this more in the coming weeks. The point being that Collins should not be throwing stones in this glass house, especially when Poloncarz is accepting in-kind donations from a union which doesn’t represent any county employees.

Also, from whom should Poloncarz raise money? He is a Democrat and a progressive one at that. He appreciates the support of labor and middle class voters and represents the interests of those constituents. Collins is sitting on a million and a half dollars in campaign cash, 53% of which came from just 20 wealthy and connected donors whose incomes put them in the top 2% of the American economic strata.

The other 98% of us ARE laborers, we are the working class, we are the majority. So, it seems ridiculous to me to assail Mark for taking his support from the majority.

This is going to be a long campaign, internal polls on both sides have it pretty tight…and stories like McCarthy’s will be a regular occurrence as each campaign spokesperson tries to influence coverage. I’ll be around to offer a different take on those stories and remind everyone that not everything you read in Bob’s weekly column is the golden truth.

Redistricting Nonsense-apalooza Begins

26 May

Note: This article looks much different from the version published at 1PM.  We use a scheduling system for posts and this was supposed to be released yesterday at 1PM, not today.  It has been updated to reflect reality.  Sorry for the confusion. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, all the better. 🙂

Yesterday, the Erie County Legislature hosted a public hearing to debate the merits of two competing redistricting proposals.

The first proposal (Local Law 3-2011), was assembled pursuant to the efforts of the Erie County Redistricting commission, which was chaired by Hodgson Russ attorney Adam Perry. The law is sponsored by Erie County Legislature Chairwoman Barbara Miller Williams.  This proposal also has the support of the six member Republican minority and the tentative support of West Seneca Legislator Christina Bove, who together make up the remnants of the much ballyhooed “reform coalition“.  Click here for a link to the map of the proposed new districts.

The second proposal (Local Law 4-2011), was designed by the Democrats and is sponsored by Betty Jean Grant. Erie County Democratic Chairman Len Lenihan was able to pull rogue Democrat Tim Whalen out of the “reform coalition” to support this proposal.  This bill has the support of the ECDC-loyal Democrats in the legislature, which gives them seven votes.  Most notable in the proposal is the redistricting punishment that will be given to “Reform Coalition” leader Barbara Miller-Williams.  Click here for a link to the map of the proposed new districts.

So, the battle is for the vote of Christina Bove, who again finds herself the subject of a political tug of war. Whichever group offers her the most comfortable level of “protection” and/or “lulus” will undoubtedly secure her vote.  If the Democrats can bring her back to their side, this will put County Executive Chris Collins in the unenviable position of vetoing the plan for downsizing and redistricting that was so central to his re-election plans.  A veto would provide a sizable political victory for Lenihan, the Democrats and County Executive candidate Mark Poloncarz leading into the fall.

So, Tina, what’s it gonna be?

We’ll find out at a special meeting of the Erie County Legislature in Old County Hall, 4th Floor, 92 Franklin St., in the City of Buffalo, N.Y.  14202 on Wednesday, June 2nd at 2PM when the final vote is taken on the competing proposals.  We’ll stream that meeting here on WNYMedia.

Mark Poloncarz For Erie County Executive

7 May

Poloncarz speaking before supporters in 2010

The 2012 race for Erie County Executive is finally underway.  Earlier today, before a throng of supporters in his hometown of Lackawanna, Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz formally announced his candidacy for the office. He’ll face King Chris Collins in the general election in November.

In his speech, Poloncarz pledged to return County government back its residents and serve as an inclusive leader for everyone.  Poloncarz said, “I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. As the son of a steelworker and a nurse here in Lackawanna, it’s more like a steel spoon. And as your next County Executive, I will never forget where I came from and that I am elected to serve you.”

“Six years ago, at the height of the worst fiscal crisis this community had ever seen, you gave me the privilege to serve as your independent taxpayer watchdog. Although those were dark days, with a lot of hard work, we were able to bring Erie County back from the brink. However, the mistakes that created the ‘Red-Green’ budget crisis are being made once again by a county executive who cares more about getting himself re-elected than serving the people of Erie County.”

Collins has maintained since his first day as a candidate that he isn’t a “politician”, but a businessman.  During his term, Collins has proven to be the ultimate politician crafting deals to construct a compliant majority in the legislature as well as making political decisions with our tax dollars.

Added Poloncarz, “Collins says he’s running Erie County like a business. The truth is, he’s raised your taxes and decimated necessary services you rely on, while at the same time giving significant raises to his patronage appointees. Instead of spending tens of millions of federal Stimulus dollars to create jobs, he’s hoarded it for more than two years in order to give himself an election year boost. That’s a raw deal and Erie County residents deserve better.”

Poloncarz continued, “A county executive should be an inclusive leader for the entire county: urban, suburban and rural. Chris Collins has instead been a divisive figure, pitting urban versus suburban while neglecting the needs of our rural constituents.”

“And, while I am willing to work with all our partners in government and the private sector to find real solutions for the betterment of Erie County, Collins refuses to work with anyone, opting to waste your tax dollars on frivolous lawsuits when he doesn’t get his way.

“I believe Erie County’s best days are ahead of us, but only if we work together to guide our community forward. That is why I have entered this race, and with your support we will return responsible government back to its owners – the residents of Erie County.”

After serving as a business and finance lawyer in the private sector for a number of years, Poloncarz was first elected as Erie County Comptroller during the height of the “Red-Green” fiscal crisis in 2005. In office, he has rooted out waste and fraud in government, created a more efficient Comptroller’s Office and restored fiscal stability to Erie County’s government.

As the taxpayers’ watchdog, one of Poloncarz’s first actions was to strengthen the office’s Audit Division and shape it into an Inspector General-style organization that stops and prevents waste, fraud and abuse of county tax dollars. Since taking office, Mark has conducted more than 50 major audits and reviews of Erie County’s departments, which have identified more than $27 million in cost savings.

Additionally, Poloncarz has lead the charge to make a more efficient county government by pushing for the creation of Erie County’s prescription drug discount program and the adoption of electronic payments for vendors saving the County and those that do business with the County time and money.

As County Executive, Poloncarz pledges to clean up all of county government in the same manner he restored the reputation and trust in the comptroller’s office.

The Politics of Cuts

14 Dec

Later today, we’ll stream the Erie County Legislature session at which Democrats will beg Legislator Kevin Hardwick (R, Tonawanda) to vote with their majority to override the 154 vetoes of the 2011 County Budget sent down by County Executive Chris Collins yesterday.

154 vetoes?  That’s a pretty stark rebuke of the County Legislature, eh?  Collins didn’t just leave it at the vetoes and said at his press conference “I know what I’m doing, they (County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz and the Legislature Democrats) do not.”

It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day transactional politics and the horrible pettiness of the budget process, but it pays to take a step back to see that this whole process is playing out just as Collins had hoped…in a political sense.

In 2011, Collins will face either Mark Poloncarz or Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul in the County Executive general election.  Poloncarz and Hochul are very popular in the cities of the county and in certain suburbs.  Hochul has an established base of support in the southtowns and in the inner ring suburbs.  Poloncarz is strong in the same areas and has done very well in parts of the Northtowns in his two tough campaigns for Comptroller.  Both potential candidates are significant threats to Collins’ re-election, especially if either can raise the money to compete with Collins’ million dollar campaign account.

Collins, being the politician that he is, saw an opportunity in this budget battle.  An opportunity to separate himself further from his potential opponents in the eyes of suburbanites.  He exploited the ever-growing city/suburb divide that exists in Erie County and worked to re-affirm to his base that he is a “no-nonsense” chief executive.

A homeowner in Getzville, Clarence, East Amherst, or Lancaster pays a hefty annual sum in property taxes.  Most of those taxes are due to their local school and town/village taxes, but they certainly don’t want to give another red cent to any government, especially Erie County.  Why?  Because Erie County Government is the one that least benefits them.

An administration source told me, “The idea is to foment a feeling that Collins is the guy who fights to keep money in the pockets of suburbanites and away from the ‘city people’ while Hochul and Poloncarz are left to pander to the urban base.  We want the anger and frustration of the urbanites, it creates an equal and opposite reaction from the suburbanites”

Well, that’s exactly the outcome, isn’t it?  Collins has had six weeks of daily news stories in the newspaper and on TV showing how the “city people” and Democrats are demanding the county teat be milked for their benefit.  His two-fisted urban programs while screaming from the mountaintops with radio ads and robocalls about big-spending liberals certainly benefits his re-election chances with the base.

After school programs for disadvantaged youth?  The average suburban voter thinks those people should pay for their own daycare.  Shakespeare in the Park or Irish Classical Theater?  The average suburban voter thinks those places should charge more for tickets.  After all, the suburban people don’t go to those shows!  Which is why Collins originally proposed funding for cultural organizations which suburban people enjoy, places like the Buffalo Zoo, the Philharmonic, the Darwin Martin House…not places like the Ujima Theater Company, El Museo or African Cultural Center.  Those are for the “other” people.

This is classic culture war stuff and the Democrats played into it, until yesterday.  They took the financial approach to demonstrate – in writing – that their budget amendments don’t increase property taxes.  This put Collins on the defensive and forced him to up the ante by declaring the entire amended budget null and void.  His press conference was a study in temper tantrums, he insulted everyone but failed to show how his budget numbers differ from those of the legislature.  A compliant media was there to not ask him any tough questions, they just like the theater of it all.

Now, we wait to see if Legislator Hardwick is swayed by numbers or promises.  The County Executive has failed to “show his work” on the budget and his budget director is on vacation.  I doubt that Collins will publicly provide the numbers to back up his assertion that the amended budget raises taxes.  Why should he bother?  Many suburban voters just want their roads paved, free Sheriff road patrols and the city people to stay right where they’re at…in the city.

Collins has framed the debate for the 2011 election.  Are you with him as a self-proclaimed defender of suburban wallets or will you stand with Hochul and Poloncarz who will be portrayed as big spending Democrats?

I’m betting that Collins may have overplayed his hand on this one and given an opening to an underdog Democratic candidate in 2011.

County Executive Issues Budget Veto Statement

13 Dec

Erie County Executive Chris Collins has responded to the Erie County Legislature’s Amended 2011 Budget and press conference.  His response, in short; go get yer shinebox!

Collins’ budget veto message was clocked into the legislature this afternoon and can be read in its entirety by clicking here.

Here are some highlights from the message:

As County Executive, I understand the Legislature’s desire to fully fund all programs, organizations and agencies that have a history of receiving county support. But as elected leaders tasked with the financial stewardship of previous county tax dollars, we have an obligation to look beyond our desires and make decisions that are responsible, Unfortunately, your Honorable Body amended the proposed budget in a way that can be described as anything but responsible.

If the Legislature’s additional spending actions were left intact, it would result in more than a $8 Million property tax increase for the hardworking taxpayers of Erie County. Therefore, I am vetoing all 154 spending additions passed by the Legislature. Let me be unequivocal: each and every override of these 154 vetoes would increase property taxes on county taxpayers.

In his veto statement, Collins makes no effort to demonstrate how, in fact, the amended budget would actually increase taxes.  He just states it as fact.

The missteps taken in your amendments to the 2011 proposed budget became evident when the Division of Budget and Management ran the basic mathematical calculations of the proposed amendments.  Assuming for a moment that all amendments are lawful and procedurally proper, which they are not, the result would be a net tax increase of nearly $1million.  The Comptroller’s and Majority Leader’s claims that this package cut spending by more than $100,000 are simply false and untrue, and another example of their sheer inability to conduct competent budget calculations. (emphasis mine)

Again, Collins provides no evidence to his claim.  He simply restates his position and insults the Comptroller and the Legislature.

Collins is attempting to rule by fiat, which he cannot do.  “The County Executive declared the entire Erie County Legislature Amendment package null and void and vetoed the entire package.  He doesn’t have the power to do that.” said Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz.

Collins did however achieve a “compromise” with the Republican caucus to shift $3 million in Federal Medical Assistance Percentages (FMAP) dollars provided to Erie County through the federal stimulus package to the Erie County Library system.  Presumably, he brokered a deal with the Library leadership and they will accept this funding without further complaint.  Collins is also betting that this contribution will buy the support of two members of the Republican caucus who stated they were willing to support the amended budget package if it could be shown to not increase taxes, Kevin Hardwick and John Mills.

Earlier today, the Democrat majority provided evidence that the amended budget package did not raise taxes and called the bluff of these two legislators.  They now have a decision to make, will they accept the word of the County Executive that his proprietary and secret budget calculations demonstrate a tax increase of $2.62 per household annually in Erie County or will they trust the actual numbers provided by the Democrats?

If my name is Kevin Hardwick, I’m asking the County Executive to show his work before making a decision.

If Hardwick or Mills fails to vote with the Democrat majority and override the vetoes, the next step will be to take the budget to court and ask a judge to sort it out.

Maria Whyte to Chris Collins: Come Out And Plaaaaaaay

13 Dec

Forgive the allusion to the epic film, “The Warriors“, but Erie County Legislator Maria Whyte (D, Buffalo) is essentially banging three beer bottles together and asking  Erie County Executive Chris Collins and his gang to come out of hiding and back up their assertion that the amended Erie County Budget raises taxes.


“Chris Collins is a schoolyard bully and we’re here to say enough is enough”, says Legislator Whyte.  “Collins has repeatedly said in his radio commercials and in robo-calls to voters that the amended Erie County budget raises taxes, he hasn’t shown anyone how that is true”.

Legislator Lynn Marinelli (D, Kenmore) added, “We’re a ‘show me”, not a ‘tell me’ legislature.  We’ve shown line by line how our budget returns money to the taxpayers and fully funds all cultural organization, the Erie County library and the Erie County Comptroller’s office, Mr. Collins has not shown us anything to the contrary.”

Today, the Democrats provided a full line by line accounting of the adjustments made to the County Executive’s proposed 2011 budget and distributed it to the media.  Click here to see the numbers.

Within the Spreadsheet you will find various worksheets. The sheet titled “2011 Legislature Amendments” is a compilation of all of the cuts that were approved to the Budget along with an explanation for each line. The sheet titled “FB Analysis” shows current and historical analysis of the amounts the Legislature approved for several fringe benefits lines in County Departments. The remainder of the worksheets simply break out the information included in the “2011 Legislature Amendments” worksheet by category.

The Legislature made some significant cuts in order to fully fund libraries, culturals and the several other departments. Most notably, cuts to salary for the Deputy County Executive, County Attorney and a reduction in the county risk retention fund and workers compensation account.

The County Executive had set aside $3 Million in the risk retention fund (used for defending the county in lawsuits) whereas the Legislature funded that line item at $1 Million for 2011. The legislature committee defended the cut by producing evidence that the remainder of the 2010 risk retention fund would roll over to 2011. The fund currently has $5.5 Million in deposits and the actual amount spent per year over the last three years was $2.69 Million.

“The Democrat Majority did not raise taxes.  No one should raise taxes in these tough economic times,” said Legislator Christina Bove (D-West Seneca), “and our amendment package reflects that priority.”

The County Executive was not present during the hearing and has yet to provide any document which provides this level of clarity on individual budget lines.

Also, the County Executive did not send anyone to the hearing from his budget team, including his Director of Budget and Management, Greg Gach, who is on vacation…during the budget crisis. Mr. Collins did have his Chief of Staff send a text message to the Legislature’s Chief of Staff to inform them that he would not be attending the meeting due to his work on his upcoming State of The County Address.


After the Legislature met, Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz held an impromptu press conference


Shortly thereafter, the Democrat majority held their own press conference.


Essentially, Maria Whyte is calling the bluff of Legislator Kevin Hardwick (R, Tonawanda) who said he would support the amended budget if it could be proven that it did not raise taxes.  Hardwick would be the critical tenth vote to override any of the potential vetoes from the County Executive.  Whyte feels she has done the work to demonstrate that and it is now up to Collins to prove otherwise.

Now, we wait to see if Collins comes out to play…

Erie County Legislature Meeting 11/30/2010

30 Nov

Here is the agenda for today’s Erie County Legislature meeting

Agenda 1 – Special Meeting

Agenda 2 – Annual Budget Meeting

The special meeting is a continuation of the meeting recessed last Tuesday, November 23rd, will reconvene today at 1:15 P.M., and immediately adjourn, in accordance with Erie County Legislature Rules of Order concerning laying the budget on the table for at least 48-hours prior to the Annual Budget Meeting.

Once Meeting No. 22 is adjourned, Meeting No. 23 (Annual Budget Meeting) will begin.  Today’s legislative actions will take place in the Chambers of the Legislature, 4th Floor at Old County Hall, 92 Franklin St., Buffalo.

Follow #ecleg or #ecbudget on Twitter for live updates and we’ll be streaming the video on wnymedia.net as well.

The budget amendment to be debated today, per the press release sent from Erie County Legislature Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams:

Buffalo, NY – Today the Chair of the Erie County Legislature, Barbara Miller-Williams (D-Buffalo, 3rd District) along with Legislator Christina W. Bove (D-West Seneca, 9th District) released a proposed amendment to the Erie County Budget for 2011. The budget amendment which was clocked in to the Legislature today and will be considered at tomorrow’s Annual Meeting to consider the Budget.

“I took a middle ground approach to craft an amendment that has a real possibility to achieve the necessary number of votes,” Miller-Williams explained. “by taking this action we can override any veto by the County Executive to assure that at the end of the day the Library and the cultural organizations actually will see the funding allocated in the budget.”

Any amendment to the budget needs 8 votes to pass the Legislature, but the County Executive can veto proposed additions to the 2011 Budget and the Legislature then must have a super majority to override the County Executive’s veto.

“The most important thing is to try to achieve results,” stated Bove. “I could find no sense in voting for something that would be vetoed with the result being that the Library and these cultural institutions would end up with nothing. This amendment is both reasonable and responsible. We need to try to get the funding that will be crucial to sustain these organizations – in the end that could be the real victory on Tuesday.”

“As Democrats it is vital that we work with our colleagues in this body as well as the County Executive to reach a solution that will do the most good for the residents of Erie County,” Miller-Williams said. “we face a difficult economic crisis and the balancing act is important, funding the culturals, adding hours to the libraries, having an audit function in the Comptroller’s office and being able to offer Primetime programs for youth are all very important in the eyes of the public. With this Amendment we have been responsive to the needs of the public and at the same time responsible to the taxpayers of Erie County. By crafting an amendment which might withstand a potential veto from the County Executive we assure that the organizations will receive their funding and I consider that a win-win situation for everyone.”

“In the end it is the results that matter,” Bove explained. “responsible legislation that achieves the best results for the residents of Erie County is the best way to govern – I believe this amendment is an example of the way government can, and should work.”

Budget Amendment, (.xls format)

Bad Government, Worse Politics

5 Oct

You may get sick of hearing it, but let me repeat the fundamental truth of American politics: the public does not want bigger government, or smaller government, but rather competent government. By that standard, Erie County continues to fail.

Kevin Gaughan’s legislature downsizing initiative may miss the ballot because two Board of Elections officials, themselves flawless personifications of the inbred Western New York entitlement-based political culture, have found a legal loophole they think they can squeeze through. Never mind that they allowed the same process last year, for a (failed) referendum sponsored by the wife of one of the board officials. Call the whole process Ianello’s Revenge.

Erie County’s property taxes, low by New York State’s otherworldly standards, are still nationally in the top 10, when compared to the percentage of the value of the house they are taxing. This is an insidious drain on our area’s resources, leaking out monthly into escrow in your mortgage payment. Allow my situation to represent the starkest comparison: I unfortunately own two homes, one here in WNY, and the other in Las Vegas, where I used to live, and became an unintentional landlord (anyone want to buy a house in vegas at 2005 prices?). The homes are worth roughly the same, have roughly the same monthly mortgage payment, and roughly the same percentage rate. In Buffalo, 55% of my monthly payment goes to escrow, for taxes and insurance. In Vegas, the figure is 15%. Or, in other words, only 45% of my payment is building me equity (or is tax deductible interest) in Buffalo, but 85% of my Vegas payment is useful. We crow about our low home prices here, but the average citizen builds wealth faster in their home (increasing the overall wealth of the community) in other parts of the country, bubble or not.

The question is not whether the taxes are high or low, but whether I am getting a good deal for my money. Don’t you suspect that we could be doing all that government does for a lot less cost? In Western New York, our personal income to housing cost ratio is high, which should be good for attracting outside businesses to the area. However, it’s bad for property taxes, since it takes a ridiculous percentage of home value to fund union salaries for Erie County workers. Funding an $80K/year corrections officer would be easier if the average house price in Buffalo was $300K, and not $68K.

Which is why our county tries to rely on the fickle sales tax to generate an above average portion of the total budget. I don’t mind balancing our books on the back of Canadian shoppers and spill-over tourism from Niagara Falls. But it leads to projection problems, irregular debt, a significant rainy day fund to bridge gaps, and, as is the policy debate de jour, conflict at budget time.

County Executive Chris Collins’ budget was destined to make everyone upset. Because it comes from his mouth and his office, it receives more acrimony than is usually present with a simple partisan divide. But it also fulfills campaign promises, which always sound better in theory than practice. He lays off workers, trims the library budget, shrinks the comptroller’s office, and, in the horror of horrors, nips $600K from the arts and culturals budget.

As Alan Bedenko points out, it is only because the county has control over such a small percentage of the budget that the conflict is so heated. Dogs always fight harder over the last scraps on the bone. This fight over $600K in county funding borders on the absurd in light of the following facts:

1) The Niagara River Greenway Commission controls $9M a year in funding for an asset utilized by far more tourists and locals (parks and green space along both lakes and Niagara River), but nary a peep is heard in the general public about its woeful record.

2) The Erie County IDA gives away more money in one session than the entire county arts budget combined, to help for-profit companies employing fewer workers. The only consistent criticism of this process is from local libertarians, but a tiny shrinking of the IDA budget could pay for all the arts we can handle.

3) The last county contract with CSEA, representing 4200 workers, gives a 15% pay raise, entrenches free healthcare for life for those hired before 2006, and mandates only a 15% employee contribution for new worker’s healthcare. Workers got $500 checks for each year since the last contract in 2006, as a sweetener. Cost to the county? $4.1M, or a rough doubling of culturals funding.

But the arts funding is receiving the press, and the criticism comes from two basic vantage points.

Alan correctly sums up a view held by a majority of Democrats that Collins is a giant jerk, and no matter what the funding decision is, they don’t want him to be the one that makes it. If the County legislature, or the advisory arts council, or my pet dog had made the decision to cut arts funding, that might be okay. But Collins is a dictator, and this is more proof. No matter the motivation, the Erie County charter does give the county executive far broader powers than are present at the federal level (for instance), so Collins is legally no more of a dictator than the law allows. The voting public will have a chance to remove Collins in the future if they don’t like the style. But it is a matter of style, not substance.

The other view is ably expressed by Colin Dabkowski and Jeff Simon, both of the Buffalo News. They make an argument for funding of the arts based purely on its merits. And while I agree with the sentiment (I like the arts too, and the groups that lost funding), I take issue with this unspoken premise: funding of a particular group in the past entitles that group to perpetual funding in the future, with the related subscript, cutting of county funding is an affront to these group’s right to exist.

Simon especially implies that Collins sees “no “reason for being”” for Shakespeare in the Park, because its county funding was cut. Since when is the county of Erie the sole or prime arbiter of an art group’s success, relevancy, vitality, or existence. It is one funding stream, and I hope, a small one. A community’s support of the arts, especially arts that exist to enrich that community and not cater to outsiders, should not exemplified in government funding. The county is not issuing, by royal decree, orders on which groups may exist or not. It is choosing which to fund, from county tax dollars, and nothing else.

Community based arts have a variety of funding streams: foundations, corporate sponsors, state and national grants, donors, and (one would hope, if a community asset) patrons. Even the Zoo sold wrist bands for a new elephant house. I question the impact and viability of any group that truly relies on county funding for its perpetuation. Despite talk to the contrary, Shakespeare in the Park will be fine, as it is a community asset. It will find enough revenue from the list at the start of this paragraph to continue. All 20 theaters that lost funding may not. But plenty of arts organizations exist now with no previous county funding (Sugar City, anyone), and I’m sure some of them are at least a bit indignant that they have grown and survived, and yet never got to feed from the trough at all.

Collins suffers from a lack of tact and communication. His desire to use arts funding to promote tourism is defensible and legitimate. Erie County is not the National Endowment of the Arts; the county executive has a right to an agenda, and to use taxpayer’s money as an investment as part of a policy strategy. It would nice if Collins himself would take the time to explain his motive and intent – he should borrow Mayor Brown’s podium more often.

Coming around full circle, let me offer two suggestions for arts funding that subscribe to a more “competent” government model, instead of simply bigger and smaller. If you are a supporter of the arts, please comment on my recommendations. Mssrs. Dabkowski and Simon are free to respond as well, if they are WNYMedia readers (which they should be):

1) Trim $400K from the big four receivers of funding (Zoo, Science Museum, BPO and Albright-Knox), and give it to the smaller groups instead. Can the Zoo do with $1.3M instead of $1.4M? This is the hatchet method, not the scalpel one, but it restores funding to the smaller groups, if they are so deserving and needy.

2) Preferably, turn arts funding on its head. If Collins were the entrepreneurial business leader that he says he is, he would not just be cutting spending, but changing how spending occurs. No matter that it’s the region’s top draw, how much bang for the buck are we getting from Zoo funding? HSBC employs a lot of workers, but $100K given to ten start up companies yields more dividends (in terms of jobs created and wealth maintained locally) than $1M given to HSBC. So keep the arts budget at $4M or $5M, but make it a competition. Which arts groups are ready to expand? Add a new space? Double the size of their program? Hire a new artistic director? On the cusp of breaking out? Invest the county’s money entrepreneurially, so you create the next Burchfield-Penney, not just maintain the old one. Help Shea’s absorb and retrofit the old Studio Arena Space. Give the Irish Classical Theater the resources it needs to double attendance in 5 years. And then move on. Don’t fund the same list every year. The IDA does not give money to GM or Kaleida simply for existing. It funds expansion and enhancement, and the county could do the same for the arts. “But art should exist for art’s sake, not just for tourism or tax revenue,” you say. I agree. I respect art for art’s sake  – when I was the ED of a small start-up arts center, we hosted a performance by a small choir that sings 500 year old chant. We received few attendees, but I was struck by the serenity of the choir members themselves; they were content that the music was alive, and the economic impact was so distant as to be forgotten. Such art should exist. But the county is not a foundation, nor the NEA, and could leverage its public dollars for maximum general impact.