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Chris Collins and that Proposed ECC North Building

Community college: like high school but with less gym.

Two weeks ago in this column, we reported on the award of a design contract for a new, $30 million academic building on Erie Community College’s North Campus to the Amherst-based firm Kideney Architects.

We suggested that the award of the design contract to Kideney, though the firm is well qualified to do the job, seemed odd for several reasons:

• The funding for the new structure has not been secured. The state has not yet budgeted its $15 million share. The other $15 million will be split by Erie County and ECC. Erie County Executive Chris Collins says he’ll pay the county’s half out of the surplus he’s accrued by not spending federal stimulus money. The college must rely on its foundation, which has not been terribly successful at raising money, and on its own 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.

• One of the principals in the firm is Tom Jaeger, who is a member of the Erie County Conservative Party’s 35-member executive committee, which decides which candidates for elective office the party will endorse.

• Collins would like to secure the endorsement of the Conservative Party, not only for himself in his re-election campaign this fall but for allied candidates—Jane Corwin, for example, who received the Conservative endorsement for the 26th Congressional District special election even before it was clear what the field of candidates would be.

Conservative Party Chairman Ralph Lorigo dismissed the notion that the Kideney contract to design a building that hasn’t been funded yet might have anything to do with Jaeger’s role in the party. He pointed out, as has the Collins administration, that the selection was made not by the county executive but by ECC’s board of trustees. He also pointed out that Jaeger did not present Kideney’s bid for the project.

But a number of emails and memos concerning the design contract suggest that bidding process was managed not by ECC’s administration or board of trustees but Michelle Mazzone, Erie County’s director of real estate. That’s the same Michelle Mazzone for whom Collins recently secured a salary of $129,000 a year. Previously that salary had been paid by the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority with a state efficiency grant, on the premise that Mazzone’s work—evaluating and making more cost-efficient the county’s real estate portfolio—would save taxpayer money. But this year the control board reasoned that if Mazzone’s work had saved the county $4 million, as the Collins administration posits, then the county could afford to pay her salary itself. So Collins added her job to his budget. The Democrats in the Erie County Legislature deleted the job from the budget. Collins gave Mazzone a different job title paying $77,000 a year, then lobbied the Legislature to restore her previous job title and salary—which it did in a vote of nine to six last Thursday, with Democrats Barbara Miller-Williams, Tim Whalen, and Tina Bove joining the Legislature’s six Republicans.

On November 3 of last year, Mazzone’s office sent to the design firms bidding on the contract a memorandum written by William Reuter, ECC’s chief administrative and financial officer, offering answers to questions posed about the request for proposals, or RFP. On February 3, another email from Mazzone’s office informed bidders that their proposals were under review. On March 10, the bidders were informed—again, by Mazzone’s office—that Kideney had been awarded the contract.

All of this communication, and presumably much more, flowed through the office of Michelle Mazzone, who works not for ECC but for the county executive. The request of qualifications, or RFQ, said that bidders should submit materials to Mazzone’s office. The RFQ said explicitly that the firm selected to design the building would negotiate a contract with Erie County’s real estate management team—that is to say, with Mazzone’s office.

So who chose Kideney to design this building for which only a quarter of the funding is assured? ECC or Collins? And while we’re ending items with question marks, why on earth is ECC even proposing a new facility for health sciences education in Amherst when so much investment in health sciences education is being focused in downtown Buffalo’s medical corridor?

Of Course, It Happens Everywhere

The item above should not be taken to suggest that the Collins administration is unique in its management of lucrative government contracts. Take, for example, the West Seneca construction firm Man O’ Trees, which most recently made headlines for being frustrated by the radioactive material they were encountering on a road reconstruction job in Niagara Falls.

Man O’ Trees has been a frequent bidder on contracts with the City of Buffalo, too. In order to make their proposals more attractive, the owner of Man O’ Trees made a $16,500 donation to Mayor Byron Brown’s campaign fund in December of 2009. Though the company has often come in a bit higher than other qualified bidders, in September 2010 their ship finally came in: a $1,924,650 contract for work on the Ellicott Gateway project in the Buffalo Niagara Medical Corridor.

What is it businessmen like to say: You’ve got to spend money to make money.

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