Tag Archives: Erie County Executive Chris Collins

Collins: A Government of One

4 Oct

The Buffalo News’ Colin Dabkowski beautifully sums up how and why Chris Collins’ decision to only fund culturals which he sees as drawing in visitors from outside the area harms local residents. To him, the cultural life of the region is seen only as a piggy bank – it’s an entry in a ledger, not something that keeps people here in this otherwise depressingly broken place. From Dabkowski’s excellent column:

His approach is focused entirely on bringing new tax revenue into Erie County through cultural tourism.

“The big, five, seven, eight organizations, they bring people in from outside the area. That’s what I’m after. I want dollars coming in here which wouldn’t otherwise come in here, which makes our economy bigger,” Collins said. “From my perspective as chief budget officer of Erie County, it doesn’t matter to me whether they go to the Albright- Knox or the movies. I get my sales tax. Period. I’m not focused on churning within the community.”

In that same interview, Collins said he would support “to some extent” the cultural organizations that add to Erie County’s quality of life, but which don’t necessarily have the potential to bring in outside tourists. If by “some extent” he meant “not at all,” Collins just delivered on his promise.

It’s not that Collins doesn’t acknowledge the importance of culture to the vitality of Western New York. It’s written into his vision statement, which declares one of Erie County’s four major selling points to be its “arts, architecture, and cultural heritage.”

“I don’t care how bad our budget situation ever gets,” Collins said. “I’m going to take care of the roads, I’m going to take care of the parks, the beaches, I’m going to make sure the bridges are open and I’m going to make sure we properly fund the culturals that are helping make our vision a reality.”

But that vision –which hinges on making Erie County “a place where people want to live, businesses want to locate and tourists want to visit” –depends more than Collins understands on the large number of small and midsized cultural groups that county dollars help to support. Those organizations, from theaters to community groups on Buffalo’s underserved East Side, serve a vital function for Collins’ constituents, with whom he seems to be woefully unconcerned. They are the people who live, work and spend money here.

Let’s test Collins’ “draw people from outside the area” theory. Specifically, let’s focus on one of the cultural institutions that’s set to receive funding. The so-called “Hamburg Natural History Museum”.

Unless he’s talking about Hansestadt Hamburg in Germany, a Google search reveals the existence of no such entity. If you add “NY”, something does come up, but not with a website. How, precisely, is an unfindable natural history museum going to draw in people from outside the area?

What they’re all talking about is the Penn Dixie site, which is supported by Republican County Legislator Lynne Dixon and Paladino’s proof of non-racism, Thurman Thomas.

To be honest, I’ve lived here almost 10 years, and I’ve never heard of the Hamburg Natural History Society or the Penn Dixie site. I have, however, heard of Shakespeare in the Park, Music is Art, the Alleyway Theater, and Hallwalls. I also think that if my tax dollars are being used to fund cultural entities, they should fund cultural entities that make life here better for the people who live here.

Read Dabkowski’s whole piece.

Out Today: EC Budget 2011

1 Oct

Chris Collins will reveal the 2011 proposed Erie County Budget today.

Let’s see how he’ll further consolidate his dictatorship.

Collins’ Choices, Deals, and Priorities

30 Sep

For almost three years, we at WNYMedia.net have been detailing how Chris Collins’ “governing” style alternates between dictatorial and transactional. The cynicism of the Collins administration (and Grassroots) was most vividly displayed in 2009, when Collins halted county management of federally funded social programs like WIC and health clinics, but directed $300,000 in cultural funding to an organization that claims County Legislature Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams’ husband on its board of directors.

Transactional, bullying politics is par for the course for Collins, and Grassroots will make political deals against the most basic interests of its mostly poor, urban constituency.

But now, Collins is proposing budget cuts that affect the white, the affluent, and the suburban. So, as you might expect, now there’s an outcry. Whereas in the past, the county’s outlay of funding for cultural organizations was set by a nonpartisan review board called ECRAB (cultural resources advisory board), controlling about $5 million in funding in 2010. It’s an imperfect, but fundamentally fair way to determine which culturals will receive public support, because there is no doubt that they add to the quality of life in WNY and if they lose that support and go out of business, no one really wins.

In 2011, the money will be reduced by about $500,000, and Chris Collins is bypassing the nonpartisan CRAB and instead unilaterally making the decision as to which organizations will stay in business and which ones won’t. According to Matt Spina, here are the winners:

10 cultural institutions in line for aid

Zoological Society of Buffalo : $1,465,000
Buffalo Museum of Science : $905,000
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra : $825,000
Albright-Knox Art Gallery : $535,000
Historical Society : $385,000
Darwin Martin House : $140,000
Burchfield Penney Art Center : $92,000
Hamburg Natural History Museum : $41,000
Graycliff : $32,000
Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site : $21,000
Total : $4,441,000

Theaters especially have been completely cut out from the proposed funding, because Collins says he only wants to fund culturals that attract visitors from outside the area.  I find it hard to believe that the Hamburg Natural History Museum attracts Torontonians and Clevelanders, so that puts the lie to that explanation, and I wonder who it is who made the deal with Collins for that $41k.  But Shakespeare in the Park and Explore ‘n More, which mostly serve the very Erie County residents who provide this funding?  They lose.  If they have to shut down, so do we.

Because the chosen 10 supposedly attract outsiders, Collins is happy to provide the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors bureau – which he controls – with well over $7 million – that’s three million dollars’ worth more funding than the culturals that enrich the lives of people already living here. $7 million to attract tourists to see the above-listed 10 places.  I guess they can cross the bridge to the Shaw if they want to see theater productions. (7.7% of the Shaw Festival budget comes from government grants).

So, these cuts should come as no surprise, yet the hue and cry from supporters of cultural organizations will be swift and vicious.

But Chris Collins has decided that cultural tourists matter more to him than the people who live here and pay the taxes being allocated.  It’s a big win if an unsuspecting tourist comes here to spend money, because it’s a net export and a way to earn tax dollars without providing any real services.  Us freeloaders here who pay the highest property tax rates in the country can go pound stone, demanding things like “police”, “fire”, and other services in addition to our unreasonable demand for a “good quality of life” for our high taxes.

I don’t fundamentally disagree with the idea that not every cultural can qualify for funding all the time, but Chris Collins is the last person I want making those micromanaging funding decisions.  If he wants to reduce funding by a few hundred thousand dollars, that’s fine, but he should permit the advisory board to make the allocations.  Because the ECRAB hasn’t made any political deals with any of the recipients or their benefactors.

I’m not sure when the people in WNY will tire of Collins’ “like a business” BS schtick, but I presume it’s when the county is facing a big deficit and we’re back at a 2004-ish square one.  Because fundamentally, nothing has changed between the way in which the county is run when Giambra was around and today.

The Back-to-School Five-Posts-in-One Sale

8 Sep

A few articles for you to take a look at and consider:

1. Chris Collins is a plucky, stubborn sort who likes to “run government like a business that tells everyone to go fuck themselves and take me to court if you don’t like it.”  The Buffalo News scores his head-butting so far.  I suspect that the Collins administration acts as a sort of real-life example of what a Paladino governorship might look like.  A lot of tough, obnoxious talk – a lot of demonization of enemies both real and imagined – efforts to change things through confrontation and litigation, rather than compromise – and in the end, not very much really ends up changing.  We’d not be changing the game – just the way we play it.

2. NYPA is to keep in WNY more money from energy generated in WNY. This is a good thing. Specifically, the proceeds of NYPA’s sale of unused hydro power would go into a fund to help economic development in Erie and Niagara Counties.  Predictably, there is disagreement as to how much money we’re really talking about.  The consensus seems to be that it’s “a lot”.

3.  In Artvoice, Bruce Fisher wonders why it is that the Buffalo Niagara Partnership – what passes for our local “chamber of commerce” and is charged with, among other things, attracting businesses to this region – talks about how badly it sucks here with such regularity.  His conclusion:

If neutral outside observers praise our cultural, architectural, and landscape fabric, and also praise our cost-effectiveness, and note that there is positive economic growth even as our population shrinks, and that there could be more if we clean up our water, then why is the messaging from our business community so relentlessly negative?

The answer, simply, is that there are two economies here. There is real economy of the producer, the consumer, the merchant, and the much-maligned public sector; the latter, all told, constitutes about one-fifth of the workforce and the payroll. That’s the economy that seems to work positively.

And then there is the economy of those in the business world here who live by the big public project—the bankers and their various support personnel, the engineering and construction firms, and about 3,000 workers (out of a regional workforce of over 550,000) whose leading voices tell this community that massive, disruptive change is needed, or else, as the Partnership’s bow-tied leader recently said, we should all move to Florida, which is the home of America’s most enormous object lesson in what happens when you turn the economy over to real-estate developers and bankers.

I don’t agree with everything Fisher says in his piece, nor with his breakdown of, essentially “good” and “bad” development in Buffalo, and I think he’s ignoring the pervasive and disproportionately strong influence that the big-money foundations have in this community and what gets done here, but it’s a thought-provoking piece, nonetheless.

4. While the commander of American forces in Afghanistan practically begs some asshat in Florida to not hold “burn a Koran day” on September 11th because it’s sort of pissing off the 100% Muslim population of American-occupied Afghanistan, Feisel Abdul Rauf writes in the New York Times in defense of the Park51 community center planned for a site a few blocks away from New York’s World Trade Center site.  The protestations against Park51 stink like an anti-Muslim Kristallnacht more and more each day.

5. The New York Times conducts an “analysis” into Carl Paladino’s status as a big-time Albany insider who likes to play a game of make-believe about being an apolitical tea party activist rich guy.  Seems similar to the analysis done by writers at WNYMedia.net back in March and April.

On “Fairness” and Collins

29 Jul

1. I was told yesterday that one of the plaintiffs in the new Bass Pro lawsuit did not want to speak with Chris or Marc or anyone from WNYMedia.net because I hadn’t called him (or any of the plaintiffs) for comment before writing this blog post. Well, here’s why. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve called someone for comment on anything I was going to write – because this isn’t news. This is editorial commentary. If I’ve read the text of the lawsuit, haven’t I already consumed their “side of the story?” If I’ve read the straight reporting from the News or Artvoice or Channel 2, I’ve absorbed the facts I need to see in order to formulate an opinion and reach a conclusion.

In the case of the professional plaintiffs’ society, the lawsuit text speaks for itself. What could the Fishers, e.g., possibly add except some pro-Fisher, anti-ECHDC spin?

The reason we still maintain a comments section, and the reason my email is available on the site, is so that anyone who cares to do so can leave a comment on the site or via email. If any of the plaintiffs want to respond, they could do so in any one of those ways. Ray Walter is smart – his opinion differs from ours on just about everything, but he’s secure enough in his convictions to mix it up with us – even yesterday on Brad Riter’s show on WECK.

If you have something to say, say it. Passive aggression is silly.

2. (Hey, look! I’ve included two blog posts in one. I have streamlined the blogging process and thus saved you about 20 seconds’ worth of clicking.)

“Pundit hates Chris Collins”. I realize that my audience is much, much bigger than it was when Joel Giambra was county executive, but if you compare what I wrote then to what I write now about Collins, you’ll note that my current material is quite tame and reasonable in comparison.

I don’t hate Chris Collins. I don’t have any emotional response to Chris Collins. What I think is that Chris Collins is a bland, uninspiring technocrat – a micromanaging, hyperpolitical, beancounting pencil-pusher who is perpetually frustrated that he can’t just run the county like a dictatorship. He is neither used to, nor tolerant of, opposition or criticism. He can solve any personal or political problem through free spending, yet Erie County’s poor and working poor have their desperately needed, federally reimbursed services cut or privatized.

Not to bring up Ray Walter’s name again, but he called in yesterday on Brad Riter’s show to defend Collins and the budgetary choices he’s made. To Walter’s mind, Collins has “reformed” county government by virtue of his careful choices with respect to taxes and spending.

But that’s not reform. I don’t define reform as “playing the same old rules a bit differently” or “pinching pennies”. When you’re talking about a prospective $30 million + budget deficit that’s been forecast for months, penny pinching isn’t obviously solving the fundamental problems.

Reform to me means things like implementing performance-based budgeting – something that was added to the Erie County Charter overwhelmingly by the voters via 2006 referendum. This isn’t a partisan attack, by the way. Clarence’s Democratic Town Supervisor, Scott Bylewski has seen to it that Six Sigma process improvements have gone hand-in-hand with performance-based budgeting to reduce waste in both time and money. Reforms introduced in the legislature by long-ago names like “Locklear” and “Konst” and “Iannello” still languish in committee limbo, never to be debated or voted on.

And above all, the micromanaging Pigeon ally technocrat is more concerned with power and image than he is with making important changes to the very structure of Erie County through regionalism, consolidation of taxing entities, which would improve interagency, inter-entity efficiency and lurch our governmental structure out of the 19th century and into the 21st. Yes, I know that Erie County is a legal construct and subsidiary of the State, but state legislators have been working on making it extraordinarily easy for counties to change how they are structuredright down to abolition.

It’s nice that Chris Collins wants to save money, but it would be nicer if he looked at the big picture, fundamental changes that might save millions rather than thousands, and bring about reforms (or at least advocate for them) that would help make Erie County more competitive.

Say what you want about Giambra’s two terms of fail, but at least he was out there using his bully pulpit for big ideas like regionalism every once in a while.

Reform isn’t defined by the way in which you play the game. It’s defined by changing the game itself.

The Six Sigma Deficit

28 Jul

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In running the county like a business, Chris Collins has strong-armed his way into a projected $36 million deficit for 2011.

I wonder how much the deficit would be without Six Sigma?

In implementing lean Six Sigma viz. county processes, he may have streamlined some of them, but ask anyone in county government to affix a dollar figure thereby saved, and they can’t.

The implementation of Six Sigma, which hasn’t resulted in any quantifiable dollar savings for the county, cost the state and county hundreds of thousands of dollars in training and personnel.

Back in 2004, when the county faced a $200 million shortfall, then-County Executive Joel Giambra tried to strongarm the populace into choosing between an austere “red” budget and a tax-hikey “green” budget, which preserved the status quo.

In 2011, we won’t have that luxury. Mr. Collins will have chosen the “red” budget for us.

All that being said, here is the real problem I have.

1. None of this is a surprise. It was reported on as long ago as January, when the Control Board and Collins discussed whether 2011 would see a $50 million or $23 shortfall.

2. The fact that we’re right back to where we are in 2004 – 2005, with respect to the way in which the county handles its finances – in this case with a so-called “Control Board” is phenomenally disappointing. Nothing’s changed. The whole county government construct must be abolished as a redundant tax-sucking anachronism.

Three Rs? He hasn’t reformed, he hasn’t rebuilt the economy, and he hasn’t reduced taxes. Instead, he’s reaffirmed the fact that counties are the needless micromanaging middleman of New York State government.

The Erie County Legislature Redefines Dysfunction #ecleg (UPDATED)

23 Jul

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There’s dysfunction, and then there’s vaudevillian dysfunction.

The Erie County Legislature devolved into the latter during Thursday afternoon’s session.

Now, admittedly, I arrived late and left early, which means that I was the envy of everyone who had to be present. As I arrived, the legislature had just voted to send a bill to create a Community Corrections Advisory Board back to the Public Safety Committee, chaired by renegade Democrat Christina Bove.

But the real fun came when the legislature took up the issue of separation of powers.

When the 2010 budget was passed, the legislature made an appropriation of $15.6 million to Erie Community College. But that represented an increase of about $200,000 over the previous year’s budget. County Executive Chris Collins had vetoed that increase, and the legislature overrode that veto.

UPDATE: It isn’t even that cut & dry. Collins didn’t veto anything. While Republican legislators claim that the Democrats played shenanigans with the budget numbers and used that to create a phantom $200,000 out of whole cloth, (a) the ECFSA (control board) told them it was ok to do; (b) the Democrats admitted using what’s called the turnover account to fund some budget pieces, but they used it for the culturals – not ECC; and (c) part of the money used for culturals through the increase via the turnover account went for funding for the Colored Musicians’ Club, which is also known as the bribe that Chris Collins paid Barbara Miller-Williams to secure her obeisance in the leg on whatever Collins deems important.

End of story, right? Veto overidden, money goes to ECC.

Not so fast. This is Erie County.

Here, Chris Collins has refused to write a check for the $15.6 million the legislature appropriated. Collins has decided to disregard the legislature and the fact that it overrode his veto, and instead is simply refusing to pay more than he wants to pay. The legislature took up a resolution yesterday pledging to take whatever action is legally available to it to force Collins to do his duty under the county charter. Here’s how it appeared in the legislative agenda:

Pretty partisan, right? All Democrats, not one Republican. Not even the ones who are political science professors and teach kids about separation of powers and checks & balances all the time.

But what happened when this item was brought to the floor can only be described as chaos. It was like watching a pen of well-suited chickens with their heads cut off, appealing to the lawyers and parliamentarian on hand about the finer points of legislative procedure. There was vigorous debate, with most arguments centering around the dictatorial way in which Collins was behaving – that he was rendering the legislature useless and powerless. At one point, there was argument, disagreement, and confusion over whether a motion to recess had been approved. For real.

Although I’m as big a proponent of abolishing county government as exists, the existing rules and laws ought to be followed.

Legislator Betty Jean Grant argued that Collins doesn’t view the legislature as being a co-equal branch of government. Maria Whyte said that Collins was behaving like a dictator, and that his attitude was, “sue me if you don’t like it”.

But even more astonishing was the fact that two of the sponsors of the resolution – Christina Bove and Barbara Miller-Williams – voted against it. Right out of the Antoine Thompson school of bill advocacy, Bove said that mid-term budget review had shown a drop in sales tax revenue, so Collins’ thwarting of legislative will was justified. Barbara Miller-Williams said Collins had until August 31st to pay the entire appropriation, so the resolution was premature. A last-second effort by Maria Whyte to send the matter to committee was too late.

I was informed by at least a few people that Bove and Miller-Williams had met with or spoke with Collins earlier in the day and that something happened during that meeting to prompt them to vote against the resolution they had co-sponsored.

Ray Walter tweeted afterwards that a “few bad apples” were disrupting the sessions, and he lauded the defeat of the anti-Collins measure. But by letting Collins do whatever he wants, the legislature has set a precedent for itself to be rendered completely useless.

Abolishing the legislature is all well and good, but the selection of county executive as dictator needs to be done with that understanding. I hope the Republicans on the legislature don’t someday find themselves with a Democratic County Executive who decides to completely disregard what they pass.

But make no mistake – no matter what money was appropriated for infrastructure projects today (will Collins cut the check?) neither the words “good” nor “government” can fairly describe what the hell happened at the Legislature yesterday. It was an abomination – an embarrassment.

The leg is on hiatus now until September, but when they come back, make sure to follow #ecleg on Twitter.

The biggest regret was that there wasn’t a single reporter (Corr: Matt Spina was present for the Buffalo News.) or camera present in that chamber for that display. It was like watching grown men and women mimic a high school Model UN, and every country is a pariah state.

NYPA to Canal Side: Have (A Lot) More Money!

13 Jul

A multiperson news conference was held today at Canal Side to announce the signing of an historic new deal between the New York Power Authority and the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation. Under NYPA’s relicensing agreement, ECHDC was to receive payouts over 50 years to help fund the development of Buffalo’s waterfront. Under today’s agreement, the same net aggregate amount will instead be paid out over 20 years, thus increasing the annual amount to $8.5 million per year.

On that basis, ECHDC will be able to issue $105 million in bonding to fund major infrastructure initiatives at Canal Side. The Canal Side project is slated to cost about $315 million, and is expected to generate $9.5 million in sales taxes, and $1.2 million in annual property taxes to the city.

Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-27) used strong language to explain that, in his view, this deal helps right a 50-year old wrong. Local politicians compromised with NYPA too much during the last agreement, and with this change the immediate benefits are much more helpful to the overall project.

The money will lead to additional street restoration, sewer work, and other work worth millions of dollars, and create jobs. Higgins added that the community can change its future when it stands up to itself, and repeated that Canal Side will “be what we make of it”. He added that this refinancing will help Buffalo’s waterfront evolve into a place of “youthfulness, vibrancy” and a variety of mixed uses.

NYPA CEO Richie Kessel admitted that the power authority hadn’t lived up to its responsibilities in the past, including the recent relicensing. He said that the “time has come for NYPA” to give some payback to Erie County and the City of Buffalo. Kessel said that Governor Paterson had urged him to reach out to Rep. Higgins, who then urged Kessel to reach out to Erie County Executive Chris Collins and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown. Kessel stressed repeatedly that NYPA isn’t just cutting a check and “walking away”. He pledged that the authority would make sure that the project is done and done right. Making a joke about ways in which he could personally persuade Bass Pro to sign a final agreement, he was the first to bring up the elephant in the proverbial room. Kessel concluded by pledging to do something similar in Niagara County, adding, “we’re here…to the end”

County Executive Chris Collins waxed poetic, stating that this announcement was about progress and collaboration, and that “we are living the renaissance of Erie County and the City of Buffalo right now”, adding that Erie County was a “shining light of success” as compared with other New York State counties. Mayor Brown echoed Collins’ collaboration theme, lauding the fact that $105 million would soon be available for this historic project, which he called “vital to city/county revitalization”, and that the “resources are now here; the money is in the bank.”

Notably absent from this announcement was a single, solitary state-level politician. With the exception of Governor Paterson and NYPA, the state legislature was left completely out of the loop. Notably present, however, was Erie County Legislator Tim Kennedy, whose district includes South Buffalo and who is running for the State Senate against incumbent Bill Stachowski (SD-58).

Collins’ “Course” is Equal Parts Dictatorial and Transactional

28 Jun

Here’s a short review of Chris Collins’ first 29 months in office. Some successes, some failures. Running county government “like a [closely-held, non-public] business”.

I don’t fully understand why the Democratic “majority” hasn’t yet taken Collins to court over his repeated refusals to carry out decisions and make appropriations for which the legislature has voted. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that three of them are aligned with him, and their staffers are busy sending “let’s get her!” texts to legislators whose names happen to appear next to “Grant, Chris” in their address books.

Collins runs county government not so much like a business – because there are several kinds and constructs of businesses – but more like a petit dictatorship. The most telling part of the News’ article:

I let people picket me, chirp at me, editorialize against me, write letters about me. It doesn’t matter.

I let?!” The only thing missing there is the majestic plural. Chris Collins all but admits that he thinks he has the power to place prior restraint on press and criticism he doesn’t like.

What the Buffalo News doesn’t do in this piece is pull the trigger on the only clear conclusion to be drawn from Collins’ tenure.

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While running, he pledged to not be “chief politician”. Yet he is the most hyper-political, transactional person in county government today, cutting deals with Grassroots and Steve Pigeon in order to weaken the Democratic establishment. Cutting deals with the ECFSA to get one over on the county comptroller he so detests.

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Businesses Don’t Always Succeed

4 Jun
Chris Collins, Erie County Executive
Image by WNYMedia via Flickr

Chris Collins.

Running County Government like a business.

An ineffective, inefficient, procrastinating failure of a business, but a business nonetheless.