I can't help but think that Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz would like to forget 2011. But, rather than forget, I sincerely hope he remembers it well and learns from it. The candidate who charged to victory primarily with the strong support of the unions and with a message that focused on the perceived arrogance of former County Executive Chris Collins, rather than on county finances, quickly found out that issues do matter and that a delightful personality can only you carry one so far.
Candidate Poloncarz painted himself, in contrast to his opponent, as caring about the workingman. Because he was the County Comptroller, he alleged he knew where millions of dollars were hidden. In fact, the only similarity he shared with Chris Collins is a pledge to not raise taxes. He didn't agree with Collins that government should be run as a business; taxpayers are not shareholders. He did seek input from stakeholders though, who were apparently different people than the taxpayers.
Poloncarz began his term as County Executive appearing before the legislature during their deliberations over the 2012 budget. He requested many spending restorations, promising they would not result in tax increases. The legislature, accommodating the newly elected County Executive and relying on his assurances, approved all of his requests. A new era of cooperation in government had arrived, but how long would it last?
The following month, several legislators sought to fund a project at the Buffalo Zoo so it could keep its certification for its beloved polar bears and properly and humanely house other animals. The pols sought to use the County's burgeoning surplus fund to fund the project. Poloncarz objected, saying he refused to allow the County's surplus to be invested in this manner. Instead, he would only consider borrowing to pay for the project. Apparently, he had other plans for the surplus money. The legislature had no choice but to accede to the County Executive and borrow the money, or else lose a centerpiece of a regional tourist attraction. Poloncarz wins; taxpayers lose.
In January, Poloncarz was confronted with paying $7 million dollars for a legal settlement, the result of the disastrous county takeover of city parks during the Giambra administration. He was aware of the settlement when he testified before the legislature, but it was now time to make the payment. Again, the minority caucus wanted to pay for the settlement using surplus funds. Poloncarz claimed he needed that money and wanted to bond the full amount. However, bonding the settlement would require a two-thirds majority of the legislature. In an effort to compromise, the minority caucus said they would agree to bond $4 million and spend $3 million in surplus.
After unsuccessfully trying to get the minority caucus to move further, chastising them for their intransigence, Poloncarz elected to pay the full amount from surplus. Taxpayers win; civility in government loses.
The next month, the capital project budget was discussed. The county had two options to finance the bonds: go directly to the financial market or utilize the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority's (ECFSA) superior bond rating and save $800,000. Poloncarz wanted the county to go to the market, saying that having the ECFSA secure the bond would extend the lifespan of the ECFSA. This argument was false, because the life of the bond was less than the length of bonds already secured by the ECFSA. He also said the county's bond rating would not increase without going to market for capital bonds. This too was incorrect: according to the ratings agencies, going to market for Revenue Anticipation Notes (a different kind of bond) was a key to increased bond rating. Regardless, as the County Executive's Deputy Budget Director admitted, the county's bond rating would never be better than the ECFSA's.
Despite the wishes of the majority of the legislature, the County Executive directed the county to secure the bonds itself. Arrogance wins; common sense loses.
As the Buffalo Bills kicked off their training camp, Poloncarz, who promised a new Ralph Wilson Stadium lease by the start of training camp, faced many questions. The County Executive appeared to blame surprised state officials and Buffalo Bills executives for not being available to negotiate. In any case, he assured the public it was not his fault and the agreement would be done for the start of the season. It wasn't. No one wins; political sincerity loses.
Poloncarz had an opportunity to keep a campaign promise in August, when he presented a major supporter of his campaign, the county's CSEA union, with a new contract proposal. The union has been operating without a negotiated contract since 2006 and felt one was long overdue. In what many considered a slap in the face, the County Executive presented a proposal that was worse than the one offered to the union previously by Collins. The union rejected the proposal. Gridlock wins; the working man loses.
And then there was the proposed 2013 budget. Despite promising not to increase taxes, Poloncarz proposed a budget with a 3.4% tax increase. This was above the 2% cap imposed by the state, but Poloncarz installed loopholes to raise taxes beyond the cap. Throughout the process, the County Executive said he needed every last penny in the budget. He refused to compromise until about 24 hours before the budget vote. Even then, he refused to yield on what the minority caucus called bloated accounts that contradicted assertions that he made while he was Comptroller or even as a candidate for County Executive. When the budget was amended to eliminate the tax increase, he implied that the legislators were children. Playground tactics win; civility loses.
No, 2012 was not a good year. The big winners were arrogance, gridlock and playground tactics. Losers included taxpayers, civility and common sense. Hopefully 2013 will be better. And there are signs it will be: the county and the Bills have a tentative lease deal currently being examined by the County Legislature. Poloncarz has agreed to allow the ECFSA to refinance some bonds, saving the county millions of dollars. The County Executive also recently negotiated contracts with unions involved in jail management, finally giving wage increases to those workers while still saving the county legacy costs.
Each of these signs are wins for the taxpayer and wins for the future of Erie County. Let's hope this early spring continues into summer and for the rest of County Executive Mark Poloncarz's time in office.
Comments? Please feel free to email me at Peter.R.Livingston@gmail.com.