John Mills was surprised. The Rath Building parking garage was the last place he thought he'd take a meeting with the Erie County Executive, but the minority leader of the County Legislature says he recently met Mark Poloncarz as both were walking to their cars.
The conversation quickly turned to potholes, as Mills complained about cuts in his district's road funding.
According to Mills, who told the story at the recent Erie County Republican Roundtable, Poloncarz said: "I'll tell you what - I'll restore your road money if you'll help me make the Comptroller's office an appointed position."
Mills laughed. He first thought Poloncarz was joking, but it didn't seem so. The legislator asked if the County Executive had a problem with elected Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw. "Yes, he's irritating," replied Poloncarz.
Now that's a funny story, I don't care who you are. The 100-plus Erie County Republicans who were with me at the Polish Cadets Hall in Buffalo last Saturday thought so, too. It would take a vote of the County Legislature and the County Executive's signature to make the elected Comptroller post an appointed position. Nobody thinks that's going to happen and Mills would have none of it, so the brief encounter ended.
But as the tale bounced around town the last four days, it grew some legs.
I've received calls from both sides of the aisle since seeing Mills at the Polish Cadets. Some accuse Poloncarz of trying to make a political deal with public money at stake in the twilight of a downtown garage. Others say it was a joke. Most say big deal, welcome to Buffalo.
From a political perspective, that's just some old school horse trading. It's been happening since Adam and Eve, usually with the same carnal result. It happens every single day in the New York State Assembly.
What's remarkable here is the politics: the County Executive is playing hardball. As a taxpayer, I'm appalled. As a political operative, I'm impressed. But is the story true?
Poloncarz says it is true, they did quickly chat in the parking lot, but he was just being funny. "It was a joke," he told me. "I can't believe John would have taken it seriously." One hint it was humor: the County Executive served as Comptroller himself for six years.
But others weren't so dismissive of the tale. "There's no reason why Legislator Mills would make this up, it's just not in his character," an insider said. "So everyone is inclined to believe John and people are asking - what was Poloncarz thinking?"
That's exactly what suburban County legislators and town officials have been asking since funded road repair projects were cut from the 2013 budget. Minority caucus representatives are crying foul - especially Mills, whose highway district maintenance budget took the largest cut despite having the most lane miles to repair.
In fact, the County Executive zeroed out $1.1 million budgeted for the Evans Shoreline Trail and $100,000 in improvements to the ECC South Auto Bureau Improvements. These were the only two projects Poloncarz vetoed; both are in Mills' district. Apparently, Poloncarz was thinking: "screw you."
"The County Executive is authorized to spend that entire amount, but he doesn't have to do so," Anderson said. He also poured cold water on the talk of hardball politics and road money grudges. "I know the County Executive and Legislator Mills have worked together successfully on several projects in the past, so I certainly don't think this is politically motivated."
As minority caucus insiders tell it, it is: this tit-for-tat is a hangover from the 2013 budget disagreement, when Mills rallied the minority caucus and forced budget cuts to stop a tax hike. It was the talk of the town at the time; the County Executive's office still stings from the defeat.
Still, the minority made no changes to road reserve funds, construction or repair funds in the budget. They did not cut the capital budget and supported the million for roadwork. Yet today, Republican potholes are empty.
So, if you believe the political payback angle on Poloncarz's parking lot proffer, you have to wonder how he did it. First, the County Executive spent $10 million less than he was authorized by the Legislature - a completely legal move. To accomplish this, minority insiders say he arbitrarily eliminated the capital projects in Mills' district, then reduced roadwork funds.
Now, Mills' often-snowbound district has significantly less funding for its roads. So far, the only projects Poloncarz has sent up for approval are in Legislator Terry McCracken's district. This reapportionment of funds in the highway budget is at the discretion of the County Executive, so there is little Mills can do but complain.
There's also consternation downtown over Erie County's $1.2 million in New York State CHIPS road funding. Poloncarz has yet to release a plan for its distribution. Some say he may not spend it this year, allowing it to lapse into the general fund.
What a colorful time it has been for political junkies. This week, New Yorkers were treated to visions of wired-up toothless Queens Senator Shirley Huntley lounging on her back deck chaise, painting her curled toenails, chain smoking and swilling Zinfandel while she taped her corrupt legislative colleagues into a corner.
Now, in Buffalo, we get the story of two political foes meeting in a low-lit parking garage, horse trading. It was May in Buffalo, so you could probably see the frozen breath of their low voices. Some operatives around here are imagining a scene from "All the President's Men." You be the judge.
"It's undeniable that all sorts of people bump into each other in the parking lot of the Rath Building and have short conversations," Anderson said, bereft of humor. "I don't think those amount to policy meetings."
"Seriously, if you can't joke around tongue-in-cheek, then how are we ever going to work together and get things done?" Poloncarz asked.
No matter how you slice this, the big winner here is Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw. He really dodged a bullet. What would it say about you in an election year if the senior Republican county legislator swapped you for asphalt, painted lines, new classrooms, a few school desks, and a mule?
"If the County Executive thinks I'm irritating now, he ain't seen nothing yet," Mychajliw told me, smiling. "I'm just getting started."
If that's true, residents of Legislator John Mills' district may be driving bumpy roads for a while. Buckle up.