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The Check's Not In The Mail

County executive tells culturals he won’t hand over the funds budgeted by the legislature

The long-running budgetary contention between the Erie County Legislature and County Executive Chris Collins has been intensifying recently, and there are signs it may become even more heated and nasty than it’s been. The latest skirmishing and sallies center on county funding for private nonprofit organizations, primarily arts and cultural groups. For almost two years the executive has been trying to reduce the amount budgeted for them, and the legislature’s Democratic majority has been trying to restore the funding he has vetoed.

The latest budget battle seems to have been caused by a letter sent to the “culturals” on December 28 by Kathy Konst, the county’s Commissioner of Environment and Planning. She told them that monies the legislature added to Collins’ budgeted amounts might nevertheless not be available to them, and that a final decision wouldn’t be made until March of 2011. A number of recipients of this letter have been contacting their legislators to express their frustrations and anger. “What’s Collins think he’s doing?” one of these individuals—who didn’t want to be identified for fear of antagonizing Collins—asked rhetorically. “How can you plan and budget this year if you don’t know how much money is coming until well into next year?”

Collins has gone further than that. Artvoice has learned that he has refused to sign funding contracts for three prominent nonprofits: The Colored Musicians Club, the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens Society, and the Olmsted Parks Conservancy. Several legislators from both parties said in interviews that they had only found out about the letter and the withheld contracts from affected constituents, and had never been informed by Collins’ office. Raymond Walter, a Williamsville Republican, said he’d received no information from Konst or Collins about the matter.

In response to the executive’s actions, the legislature last week passed a resolution calling on Konst to appear at a meeting of the legislature’s Community Enrichment Committee “to discuss which contracts have been sent out, and for what amounts, and why.” Committee chairman Thomas A. Loughran, Democrat from Amherst, scheduled a hearing for Thursday, February 11 at 12:30pm. On Tuesday, in a telephone interview, he said that “Konst hasn’t been seen in the legislature since she got the [commissioner’s] appointment from Collins, even though she’s been asked.” Asked if he thought she’d show up this time, Loughran said, “I’m not holding my breath.”

Loughran said that Collins has been “playing hardball” over the issue for personal and political reasons, and he pointed to the executive’s demand last year that he be allowed to appoint some members to the boards of several of the larger organizations. Loughran calls this “a conflict of interest” since Collins also proposes public funding for these groups. (Several phone calls to Collins and Konst seeking information or comments were not returned.)

Collins has seized on the legislature’s means of funding the amounts they added to what he budgeted as a device to deny the funding. The Democratic majority relied on the Personnel Services County Share Vacancy Turnover account to get the funds. Essentially, this means it allocated money saved by keeping positions vacant. Konst’s letter to the culturals accuses legislators of having “arbitrarily increased” the amount Collins budgeted, but legislators respond that they carefully estimated the available funding and made responsible projections.

Loughran calls Collins’ and Konst’s actions “unilateral,” and Majority Leader Maria A. Whyte says it’s probably a violation of the county’s charter. She also notes that members of the county’s fiscal control board, set up by the state to monitor county budgets, have agreed that the legislature’s decisions were fiscally responsible. “The county executive wants it both ways,” Whyte said. “He should have vetoed the allocations if he didn’t agree. This really gets back to representative government. He’s just impounding money” he doesn’t want spent.

Last year, Collins’ refusal to spend funds passed by the legislature led to a suit in state Supreme Court, which he lost.

—george sax

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