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One Part Spite, One Part Smoke and Mirrors
by Geoff Kelly
Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz talks about the county executive’s proposed budget.
On October 1, Erie County Executive Chris Collins presented his proposed 2011 budget and four-year financial plan for the county. The first reaction of many, including writers for this paper, was to express dismay and disbelief that Collins proposed to strip county funding from all but 10 cultural institutions that he felt were worthy of subsidy. The roughly $1 million in cuts to the region’s theater companies and smaller arts organizations seemed ill considered, at best; coupled with about $4 million in cuts to the county’s public library system, those cuts seemed barbaric.
This week, Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz released his analysis of Collins’ proposed 2011 budget. Poloncarz’s assessment: It’s even worse than it looks on the surface.
“While balanced on paper, we believe the [Collins’ budget] is not structurally sound and is not reasonable,” says the comptroller’s report, released October 13. “While the County Executive is cutting some spending, his cuts are arbitrary and in many cases clearly punitive.”
The most punishing cuts, according to Poloncarz, are to his own department: Collins proposes a 36 percent cut to the comptroller’s staff, hacking away 15 jobs out of the current 42, and even cutting the budget for office supplies.
In comparison, the Sheriff’s Department faces only modest job cuts, mitigated by some new positions, and the Erie County District Attorney will lose just two part-time positions. The County Clerk and the Erie County Legislature lose no personnel in Collins’ proposed budget. Collins’ office loses just one position, a senior executive assistant to the county executive; that position has been vacant since January 7, 2010, when its occupant went to work for the Republican caucus on the Erie County Legislature.
In other departments, many of the proposed job cuts—217 occupied positions deleted, 198 vacant positions deleted, balanced by 17 new jobs created—comprise clerical positions. The jobs to be lost in Poloncarz’s office, by comparison, are professionals, including five out of the office’s seven audit staff. All five staffers charged with collecting property taxes would lose their jobs. So would the accountant who monitors health and dental insurance payments for the entire county, ensuring that nothing so embarrassing as what happened recently in city government—which discovered it was paying insurance claims for the families of deceased city workers—can happen in county government. Poloncarz would also lose the person who dogs hotel and motel owners to fork over the hotel occupancy tax they collect from patrons to the county—a $7.7 million revenue stream that often slipped under the radar until Poloncarz made collecting taxes (as well as late-payment penalties and interest) a priority. In one settlement reached last year, with hotelier James Cosentino, Poloncarz’s office recouped $310,000 in taxes Cosentino had owed to the county since the early 1990s.
“These are revenue generators,” Poloncarz says, “people who are bringing money into the county by making sure that people pay their taxes—not only making sure that they pay their taxes on time, but if they don’t pay them on time, that we collect penalties and interest from them.”
Poloncarz says that his office has more responsibilities than any other county comptroller in New York State. “We also have more power and duty under the Erie County Charter than any past comptroller in Erie County,” he adds. “And yet I have the smallest staff right now of any Erie County Comptroller.”
That’s true: In 1987, Alfreda Slominski had 74 staffers; she left office in 1993 with 60. Nancy Naples had 62 employees when she left office at the height of the red-green budget meltdown. The layoffs that attended that debacle left the comptroller’s office with 22 employees, a number which was soon bolstered to 32. By 2008, Poloncarz had 44 staffers. In 2009, Collins cut two of those jobs, and now he wants to eviscerate the office completely.
The things Collins values
“He doesn’t see value in certain cultural organizations, so he cut them,” Poloncarz says. “He doesn’t see value in libraries, so he cut them. He doesn’t see value in my office, so he cut my office.
“To go out and say he had to make these cuts is wrong. He didn’t need to make these cuts. He made them because he wanted to, and he targeted the things he just didn’t like.”
In fact, Poloncarz believes he’s identified about $7 million in Collins’s proposed 2011 budget that could be used to restore his staff as well as funding for the library system and cultural institutions. He thinks Collins has overfunded fringe benefits for the Sheriff’s Department by about $2 million, the risk retention fund by about $1 million, and the workers compensation fund by about $1.5 million. He believes that the Collins administration has overfunded employee healthcare benefits, as it has done in the past—ordinarily a prudent thing to do, Poloncarz allows, but why do so this year if this is indeed an austerity budget?
Poloncarz also takes issue with the $2.5 million increase in funding for road projects, money that is spent primarily in the Republican suburbs that provide Collins his political base. He also notes that there were no cuts to the Sheriff’s road patrols, which constitute the police force for suburban communities like Clarence, where Collins lives.
He suspects Collins is hiding money by tucking increases into the professional services accounts of his law department (a $125,000 hike over last year’s allocation), the building and grounds department (a $100,000 increase over last year’s allocation), jails management (a $475,000 increase over last year’s allocation), and sewerage (a $1.4 million increase over last year’s allocation).
Last year’s expenditures don’t seem to call for such increases, Poloncarz says, so why put more money there while slashing funding to libraries and theaters?
Poloncarz theorizes that Collins is simply parking pots of money where he believes they won’t be used, hoping to rake that unspent money back into the general fund, in order to show a tidy surplus next fall. Next year is an election year, after all, and Collins will bend over backward to avoid having to propose a property tax hike a month before the general election.
Poloncarz sees in this year’s proposed budget many indications that Collins is trying to set himself up for an easier re-election campaign next fall. Gutting the office of a potential political rival is surely a smart political move.
“If he’s going after me for political purposes, then shame on him, because he’s hurting the entire county,” Poloncarz says.
Personal or political? Or both?
The feud between Collins and Poloncarz has been a centerpiece in Erie County affairs since Collins took office, and its skirmishes run the gamut from petty political squabbling to substantive arguments over the role of government and its constituent branches.
In part, the feud is stoked by ideological differences. In his role as the county’s chief financial officer in charge of oversight, Poloncarz, a Democrat, frequently has doled out criticism of the Republican county executive’s imperious style and his apparent disdain for the needs of the urban core. Collins—who made a fortune buying up distressed businesses and gutting them—has demonstrated little tolerance for the checks and balances built into democratic governments.
But Collins’ animosity is also fueled by politics. Poloncarz is considered likely to challenge Collins when the county executive runs for re-election next year. Collins and his administration’s PR flacks consistently accuse the comptroller’s office of using its auditing arm to try to score political points against the county executive.
In fact, Collins has been happy to make use of the audits Poloncarz’s staff performs, even as the county executive’s chief political officers—people like chief of staff Chris Grant and spokespeople Grant Loomis and Ellen Notarius—deride those same audits as being wastes of taxpayer money.
In the current budget, for example, Collins touts the money he continues to save taxpayers by reducing the number of cellphones issued to county employees. The potential for such savings were first outlined in an audit that came from the comptroller’s office. Collins also boasts of the agreement he reached last year with Erie County medical Center that substantially reduces the county’s payout to the hospital over years to come. In the negotiations that led to that agreement, the Collins administration made use of an audit performed by Poloncarz’s staff which fixed the potential burden imposed by ECMC on the county budget going forward.
Similarly, the Collins administration relied on a Poloncarz audit of the costs of maintaining the city’s parks versus the payments received from the city to justify terminating that relationship. Same again with the cell block holding function, another city-county deal in which the city paid less for a service than it cost the county to provide it. Collins cites the termination of that deal in his current budget proposal as cost-saving measure. The comptroller’s office was the first to identify the potential savings.
The parks audit and the cell block holding audit each identified about $1 million in potential savings to the county. So there are $2 million in savings pinpointed by the comptroller’s audit department and seized upon by the county executive. Elsewhere, that might seem a fruitful partnership. In Erie County, it is poisoned by politics.
Another example: Recently the comptroller released an audit of the county’s performance in the aftermath of the October 2006 snowstorm. Collins’ PR staff immediately attacked the audit. (“It’s a shame that this report comes at taxpayer expense,” Collins spokeswoman Ellen Notarius told the Buffalo News.) But the two department heads who worked with Poloncarz’s office to complete the audit—Collins’ own hires—praised the audit, saying it was good to see a final reckoning of money spent, recovered, and still owed.
“He doesn’t have to like me personally, but he should respect the office of comptroller,” Poloncarz says. “He doesn’t have to like the audits that we choose, though it’s not his choice under the charter. And I think it’s ironic that he criticizes my audits, criticizes my staff, and then takes the audits ad uses the recommendations and implements them.”
Six Sigma: or, hope is not a plan
By comparison, the cost-cutting initiatives that spring from the county executive’s own imagination are somewhat enigmatic.
Lean Six Sigma, Collins says again and again. It is his management mantra, the means by which he imagines government can at last be run like the business he insists it ought to be.
In his proposed 2011 budget, he cites unenumerated cost savings and efficiencies achieved by the Six Sigma program, which until recently has been funded by efficiency grants from the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority. But the control board has been frustrated by the Collins administration’s unwillingness or inability to provide evidence that the millions of dollars in grants to the program have achieved any actual savings to taxpayers.
Poloncarz allows that Six Sigma has achieved some efficiencies but finds no evidence that those efficiencies have resulted in real savings. “To our knowledge, ECFSA, which was funding the Six Sigma initiative, has yet to receive quantifiable savings data and has expressed concerns about the alleged cost savings,” Poloncarz says. “We cannot confirm any savings estimates and believe there are no realistic cost savings.”
If there were specific, documentable cost savings, Poloncarz adds, wouldn’t the county executive jump at the chance to boast about them? After all, it’s his favorite program, a plank in the platform on which he ran for office.
At least one proposed Six Sigma initiative evinced an unpleasant, Enron-esque flavor. The Collins administration proposed solving a concern with excess overtime costs run up by the county’s buildings and grounds workers by shifting those overtime costs from the operating budget to another budget line. The cost itself would not have diminished under this Six Sigma proposal; it would just move. Worse, it would move to the capital budget, which is funded by bond sales—so, in addition to paying the same overtime costs as before, taxpayers would also be liable for interest payments on the bonds financing that budget line.
There’s a similar shuffle afoot in Collins’ proposed 2011 budget, according to Poloncarz: Collins claims to be eliminating 51 positions from the Central Police Services budget. But these jobs aren’t being cut; they’re just being moved to another budget line, the E-911 fund.
These are apparently the sort of initiatives Collins will rely on to close projected gaps in future years, according to the four-year plan he filed along with his budget. Collins also says he’ll plug future gaps with Six Sigma savings, of which he can provide no evidence; ECFSA efficiency grants, which no longer exist; further cuts in discretionary spending (so don’t rest easy, Albright Knox and BPO); and hypothetical reforms of the state’s Medicare system by future governors based on statements made by the two major candidates, Carl Paladino and Andrew Cuomo.
That’s right: Collins is proposing to plug future budget holes with somebody else’s campaign promises.
“He says there’s no smoke and mirrors in his budget?” Poloncarz says. “There’s smoke and mirrors.”
Read the full text of Poloncarz’s analysis of the Collins budget here, on AV Daily.blog comments powered by Disqus
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