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The Conservative Spending of Chris Collins

Why a new building for ECC North?

Last week, the Amherst-based firm Kideney Architects was awarded a contract to design a new, $30 million academic building for Erie Community College’s North Campus.

The funding for the new structure feels somewhat insecure: Half of the funding would come from the state, but the state has not yet budgeted its $15 million share. The other half would be split between Erie County and ECC. According to a Buffalo News report, County Executive Chris Collins says he’ll pay the county’s share for the project out of the county’s fund balance—the surplus he’s managed to accrue by not spending federal stimulus money. The college’s $7.5 million share will be more difficult to come by. ECC must rely on its foundation, which has not been terribly successful at raising money, and on its own capital improvement funds, at a time when the state is proposing a 10 percent cut in aid to the college, a loss of more than $3 million. ECC has suggested a tuition increase to make up the loss.

Why is ECC pushing forward with the design for a new building when the funding is not yet in place? Here’s a conspiracy theorist’s answer: One of the principals in Kideney Architects is Tom Jaeger, who is on the 35-member executive committee of the Erie County Conservative Party. Collins, who is running for re-election this fall, would dearly like to win the Conservative Party’s endorsement—and early, if possible.

So would his potential Democratic opponents, of course. Collins, while he might seem a natural choice for Conservatives, has not got a lock on the party’s endorsement. Two of those Democrats, Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak and Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul, have long been endorsed by the Conservative Party. (Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz, another potential candidate, has not been so cozy with the Conservatives.) The candidate with the Conservative Party endorsement gets the third line on the ballot, which can make a difference in a close race.

Does it seem a stretch to believe, in this county of transactional politics, that the award of a contract to an architectural firm to design a building that isn’t in anyone’s budget yet could be a little favor, a lagniappe, for someone on the inside of a critical endorsement process?

Conservative Party Chairman Ralph Lorigo dismissed the notion. “Everyone wants an early endorsement,” he said, when asked if candidates has begun approaching the committee for its endorsement. “It is not unusual to look at an important race and to try to have some influence in that race by taking a position early on. I think it’s possible that will happen in this case.”

As for Jaeger’s firm and the ECC design contract, Lorigo pointed out that the decision-making fell to the ECC board of trustees, not to Collins, and that Jaeger is one of many principals in the firm and did not present the project himself. If the other members of the executive committee feel Jaeger has a conflict of interest in regard to Collins as a result of receiving this contract, Lorigo said, they would be free to raise their concerns. “And Tom would have to answer to that,” he said.

Lorigo hopes the Conservative Party will choose its horse in April, though he says some of his executive committee members would prefer to wait. “We have a fundraiser coming up, and they don't want to take away a reason for people to come.

“I understand,” he said, laughing. “It’s a good reason.”

geoff kelly

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