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Chris Collins and the politics of 'let 'em eat cake'

Collins 2 When you think about it, Chris Collins is CEO of the biggest social service agency between New York City and Cleveland.

Two-thirds of Erie County's $1.1 billion budget is spent on social, health and human service programs. We're talking everything from welfare to health clinics to child abuse services, with a collective price tag of some $695 million.

Given what the the county executive is responsible for, it's especially -- I don't know, what's the word? ironic? troublesome? cruel? -- that Collins holds these programs in such low regard.

I mean, if you didn't want to deal with social services, why seek the job?

Consider what Collins has done in his two years on the job:

He was in office just three months when he pulled the plug on county participation in a program aimed at ending drug abuse among the young. Last March, he ended county participation in the federally funded Women, Infants and Children nutrition program

In both instances, he said other agencies could pick up the slack, and that ending county participation would save money. On the latter point, not even the Legislature Republicans were with him, as they joined the Democrats in presenting a united front in asking Collins to keep the county in the nutrition program.

Regardless, Collins was just getting warmed up.

He wanted to close two East Side health clinics last year. Foiled by the County Legislature, he has the clinics instead turning away many patients, in what appears to be an effort to slowly strangle the operations.

Of late, Collins has axed county funding for subsidies that provide child care for 1,100 children of low-income working parents, a move that will likely put some families back on the welfare rolls. It's been dubbed Collins' "work to welfare" program.

His intractable position on the issue was the focus of a protest Tuesday in which County Legislators Maria Whyte and Betty Jean Grant, among others, took Collins to task for sabotaging the program despite its benefits, as articulated by the Legislature.

Child care protest

It's hard not to recognize a pattern. A disturbing one, given that county government sits in the nation's third-poorest city.

What to make of Collins' antipathy towards these programs?

One could argue that he's out of touch, probably never was in touch.

I mean, the guy lives in a million dollar house in the exclusive enclave of Spaulding Lake in Clarence. He's a millionaire many times over thanks to his extensive business holdings, according to the financial disclosure report he's required to file with the county.

But if you think he's indifferent to the plights of poor inner-city residents, well, you're only half right. He hasn't shown any concern for the region's growing ranks of the unemployed either.

You can find them everywhere from Springville to Alden, and all points in between. Except, maybe, Spaulding Lake.

As my colleague David Robinson reported last month: "The Buffalo Niagara region’s unemployment rate jumped up to 8.5 percent in December as continued job losses kept the number of people without jobs at its highest level in at least 20 years."

Yeah, you can't put it all on Collins, as a national recession took hold during his first year in office. But, because of that recession, the federal government has provided Erie County $74 million in stimulus money over the past 18 months to help spur job growth, and President Obama's proposed 2010-2011 budget would ship another $20 million here during the first six months of the new federal fiscal year.

You'd think $94 million would help spur some job creation, but Collins hasn't sunk a penny of it into creating gainful employment. Nope, he's socked it all into the county budget, to shore up Erie County's finances and avoid the need to raise taxes.

Thus, politics trumps putting people to work.

It's no real surprise to those who have been paying attention to his efforts on the economic development front.

A year ago, in his State of the County address, Collins declared his intention to quarterback the region's economic revival. In the days leading up to his address, he did a media blitz talking about his Ten Point Plan, produced a 15-page brochure with all the details and produced several videos that he posted on YouTube.

Yup, 2009 was going to be the Year Of Economic Development, and the County Executive Who Runs Government Like a Business was going to lead the charge.

It didn't turn out that way.

Put aside the recession and all those nasty job losses. Let's examine what Collins had some degree of control over.

Did he successfully launch any major economic development initiatives?

Did he attempt to be a player in the reshaping of economic development policies, such as reform of Empire Zones or the redeployment of low-cost hydropower generated at the Niagara Power Project.

Can he point to a significant success, a big win, on any front?

The answers, people, are "no," "no," and "no."

When I look back on the year, all that comes to mind is Collins' appointment of Kathy Konst as his top economic development official, she of minimal qualifications whose departure from the County Legislature provided Collins with maximum political returns.

Marie_antoinette_executionCollins' style of economic politics may play well with the martini crowd at the country club. But it is doing nothing for those who down draft beer at taverns and sports bars across this community.

If you're a working mom looking for help with child care or an out-of-work factory worker, Chris Collins offers not a plan, but a piece of cake. Which sometimes doesn't make for good politics.

Just ask Marie.

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Economic Development | Local Government | Politics
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