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Musings for a Monday


There are a lot of screwed-up operations in local government, but for my money, none of them can touch the Erie County Sheriff's Office. 

The county Holding Center is a house of horrors, and Matt Spina reported Sunday on the department's practice of granting what amounts to overtime pay to management personnel to perform a task they don't actually perform. Sheriff Tim Howard doesn't see a problem with this, of course. Then again, he thinks the Holding Center is just dandy, too. 

I'm not sure $425-an-hour lawyers, much less $150-an-hour PR flaks, can save this operation.

Oh, for the old days of B. John Tutuska -- to say nothing of Andy and Barney.


I've heard from two planners who said City Hall never even acknowledged receipt of their resume, much less talked to them, when it conducted its so-called search for a new city planner. Both seem to have legit credentials. The position, if you recall, was filled by a lawyer already on the city payroll who has never worked as a planner.

The folks at WNYMedia.net have a pretty funny, NCAA-bracket-inspired competition called PoltiFAIL. It pits the usual suspects against each other and lets readers choose who is more at fault for the state of the region. They're down to their Sweet 16, and pairings include Dale Volker vs. George Maziarz, Chris Collins vs. Barbara Miller-Williams, and the Western New York voter vs. Steve Pigeon. Good tongue-in-cheek fun. The list of bad politicians is depressing long, however.

The Chicken Littles are out in full force, with dire warnings from the School Boards Association and Buffalo Superintendent James Williams, about the prospect of massive layoffs if the state doesn't keep funding schools in a style they're accustomed to. A few Assembly members, including Sam Hoyt, have come up with one obvious solution -- a wage freeze for teachers. It's been happening in the private sector -- along with wage cuts -- as businesses come on hard times. Not that I expect the teacher unions to go along, as ever-increasing pay is regarded as an entitlement. I'd like to hear someone talk about consolidation of school services in the short run as a precursor to a merger of districts. We've got more than 30 in Erie and Niagara counties alone. Face it, school property taxes are the real killer in this state, and part of the reason is all the duplication that comes with the multitude of districts.

The recent Assembly vote on the budget included several "no" votes of note, as nine Democrats, including  Hoyt, Francine Delmonte, Robin Schimminger and Bill Parment, joined Republicans in saying "no, we shouldn't." The measure passed anyway, 91-51. It would cut school aid less than what the governor has proposed and enables the borrowing of $2 billion. 

The Citizens Budget Commission, a critic of Empire Zones, sees merit in the Excelsior program proposed by   Gov. David Paterson, saying it has "potential for a better, more effective program." The commission offers this smart analysis on what's wrong with Empire Zones and good about Excelsior.

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More things I think you ought to know

Come to find out, District Attorney Frank Sedita isn't the only county official who is not using the services of County Attorney Cheryl Green. Mark Poloncarz, the county comptroller, recently decided to stop using her, although he's still availing himself of some members of her staff.

Like Sedita, Poloncarz is a lawyer himself.

One could write this off as partisan politics, but I think it goes beyond that.

The zealotry with which Green has defended conditions at the county Holding Center has a growing number of people questioning her judgment.

And the fact she's won only one of seven motions and other legal arguments she's made to block federal and state efforts to address problems at the Holding Center also has people questioning her competency as an attorney.

The Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. canceled its board meeting last week amid a lot of chatter and speculation that Mayor Byron Brown intended to ask board members to resign en masse as part of his effort to fold BERC into the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency.

The board meeting was canceled for reasons unexplained. My guess is that board members didn't want to give Brown a forum. Sources I've spoken with said the mayor, through intermediaries, has put out the word that he doesn't want BERC issuing any more loans or making any more grants.

Board members are peeved the mayor called for the agency's dissolution without so much as a courtesy call, much less a discussion before a decision was made.

What's more, members have a fiduciary responsibility for BERC's nearly $30 million in assets. I imagine they realize they simply can't walk away, given the absence of a transition plan. 

Maybe Carl Paladino can muscle his way into the Republican race for governor through the strength of the $10 million he says he's prepared to spend. But thus far, he's being treated as an afterthought even before he's formally announced his intention to run.

The state Conservative Party ignored his plea to hold off making an endorsement and gave the nod this weekend to Rick Lazio. Meanwhile, many press accounts outside of WNY about the competition for the GOP nomination either fail to mention Paladino or mention him only in passing.

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Things I think you ought to know

The Erie Harbor Canal Development Corp. is poised to spend a boatload of public money to rehab the old Donovan Building and lease it to someone who will therefore benefit from government largess. And who might the grand prize winner be? None other than its law firm, Phillips Lytle. Isn't that, ah, convenient. To say nothing of cozy. But hey, as one of the city's biggest law firms -- and contributors to all sort of politicians, including Sen. Antoine Thompson, Phillips Lytle has to keep up with Damon Morey, which recently relocated to Avant, another downtown office building transformed with public dollars and mega tax breaks. Ah, economic development in the City of No Illusions. 

The election in East Aurora the other day pitting candidates on both sides of the village dissolution debate was close, with the status quo people winning narrowly. But down in Cattaraugus County, voters in three villages decided enough is enough.  East Randolph, Perrysburg and Randolph all go bye-bye at the end of next year. Amazing that  someone once thought we needed different governments for Randolph and East Randolph. Think the folks in West Randolph felt disenfranchised?

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is sniffing around about possible public pension abuses around the state, including Erie County. Gee, ya think? I think he ought to get County Legislature Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams on this right away.

I really liked Rod Watson's column yesterday. Although I don't think there's any truth to the rumor that a lot of the people he writes about attend rallies wearing T-shirts that sport an arrow and read "I'm with stupid."

The best reader comment I've see in some time came in response to the story yesterday about the SPCA raiding a farm in the Town of Aurora -- not to be confused with the Village of East Aurora, or the People's Republic of Central Aurora -- that was home to neglected horses and cats living in filth. 

Retorted JOHNO1:

Erie County Attorney Cheryl Green has just filed a motion in federal court to stop any interview of any horses held in the holding center unless the interviewer is accompanied by Mr. Ed.

This blog post is starting to remind me of a Rodney Dangerfield routine.

 

And people say I'm all outrage, no insight.

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Cheryl Green's sorry scorecard

It's spring training and time I started brushing up on keeping a scorecard.

The Bisons aren't back in town yet, so I've gotta practice on something else.

What's an outraged blogger to do?

Ah, I've got it.

Cheryl green, county attorney County Attorney Cheryl Green has been fighting federal officials tooth and nail, trying to keep them out of the Erie County Holding Center, otherwise known as Suicide Central.

How's she doing?

First, she lost a motion to dismiss a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit challenging conditions at the county Holding Center.

Next, she lost a motion that sought to dismiss a Justice Department request for expedited discovery to gain access to the Holding Center to examine its suicide prevention efforts.

Then she lost a lawsuit filed by the state Commission of Correction seeking to compel Sheriff Tim Howard  to operate the holding center in a "safe, stable and humane manner."

Why the nerve of the state.

Green went one for three in federal court Wednesday, as reported by Matt Spina.

The judge rejected her demand that she sit in on Justice Department interviews with inmates scheduled for next week. Ditto for her motion that would have required DOJ consultants to formally depose county employees in order to ask them about suicide prevention efforts.

The judge did uphold her demand for depositions when DOJ attorneys, rather than consultants, do the questioning.

Let's see, that makes her one for six.

With that batting average -- .167, for the record -- she'd be headed for the minors if she was playing for the Bisons.

The low minors, at that.

I guess that explains why Green's boss, County Executive Chris Collins, gave her the OK to retain an outside law firm at $425 an hour to handle the Justice Department's suit against the county for conditions at the Holding Center.

With her batting average, would you want Green handling your legal affairs?

I mean, District Attorney Frank Sedita is no dummy, and, while entitled to the representation of the county attorney when sued by former Assistant DA Mark Sacha, he essentially said "thanks, but no thanks" and hired his own counsel.

By the way, since she began her legal jihad -- no doubt with Collins' approval, and, probably encouragement -- five inmates have hanged themselves at the Holding Center. Little wonder that the center's suicide rate is almost five times the national average for county jails. 

But I'll give her credit for what's being dubbed the "Extreme Jail Makeover."

On second thought, the cleanup is akin to wiping away fingerprints at a crime scene.

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Barbara Miller-Williams is not leading by example

Miller-williams 2


Barbara Miller-Williams is absolutely correct when she says she's playing by the rules in working a boatload of overtime in order to boost her pension benefits. As a Buffalo cop, she is clearly within her rights to do so.
 
But, as chairwoman of the Erie County Legislature, one could also argue that she is tone deaf.

The taxpaying public is sick and tired of public employees milking the system for every penny they can lay their hands on. In this case, the $84,159 in overtime she's picked up the past three years -- including more than $51K last year -- will boost her annual pension by an estimated $14,000.

When that public employee also happens to be one of their top elected officials, well, I can anticipate what the reaction will be. It won't be pretty.

Add to it this the fact Miller-Williams is putting in only 15 to 20 hours a week as chairwoman.

On one hand, that's a good thing, because the Police Department prohibits officers from working more than 20 hours a week at an outside job.

Then again, do we really want the chairwoman treating her $52,000-a-year position as decidedly part-time gig?

And probably running on fumes part of the time when she's performing her legislative duties. I mean, she's been working an average of 60 hours a week for the past year, year-and-a-half. On top of that, one weekend a month she's off doing her duty as a member of the Army Reserves.

What's left in the tank to perform her legislative duties?

This could be a moot point when Miller-Williams retires from the police department at the end of the month. But it does raise a question as to just how diligent she is in approaching the job.

Moreover, it puts her, and by extension, her colleagues on the Legislature, in a potentially awkward position the next time they ask rank-and-file employees to make contract concessions to save the county money.

Suffice to say, the Legislature's leader has not led by example.

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Taxpayers, Chris Collins and the Holding Center fiasco

This talk out of the Chris Collins camp about putting taxpayers first is getting tired. To say nothing of phony.

The latest utterance was reported over the weekend, when flak Grant Loomis said a decision on whether to appeal an order issuedby U.S. District Judge William Skretny to allow Justice Department investigators into the Erie County Holding Center will be based on "the best course of action for county taxpayers."

Ah, Grant, the best course of action for county taxpayers is to do everything possible to avoid the multi-million lawsuits that are likely to stem from the growing number of suicides at the Holding Center.

If it were really about taxpayers, the county executive wouldn't be paying lawyers more than $400 an hour to defend the indefensible at the Holding Center. Or be pushing for a pay raise for the guy who runs the joint.

But you see, Grant, it's really not about the taxpayer.

If it was, Matt Spina wouldn't have reported what he did the other day, that some of the top managers in the Sheriff's Office pad their paychecks for work that's not relevant to their duties.

Erie County grants its unionized corrections officers and jail deputies 15 minutes of overtime pay each day to start their shift 15 minutes early, so they can attend that day’s briefing by higher-ups.

Several sheriff’s administrators, even though they are not unionized employees, can collect lineup pay, too — a half-hour daily. Some of the highest-ranking supervisors, already granted six-figure salaries and take-home vehicles, collect lineup pay.

For example, the benefit added more than $9,000 each to the 2009 salaries of Undersheriff Richard Donovan and Administrative Coordinator Brian Doyle ... 

Lineup pay added $9,020 to Koch’s salary in 2009, when he averaged 2.5 hours a week in lineup duty, which would be considered normal for an administrator who can receive 30 minutes of lineup pay daily. But he collected those 2.5 hours a week even during vacation weeks, payroll records show.

And here's the kicker -- I'm told the management guys don't actually have to show up for the lineups to collect the pay.

Ah, Grant, that's called "no show."

Usually not a good thing for taxpayers.

But it does conform with Collins' mantra of running government like a business.

As in, give the guys in management all sorts of perks, regardless of whether they deserve them or not, and  demand givebacks  from the working stiffs.

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Stubbornness of Collins and Co. will cost the county

Tim Howard, Chris Collins and Cheryl Green have invited blowback for their obstinance in addressing problems at the county jail and Holding Center and the state Commission of Correction has obliged them.

Matt Spina reports in Thursday's paper that the commission has said "no mas" to waivers granted in the past that have allowed the county to house more inmates at its jail in Alden than the facility was built to hold.

Reports Spina:

As of Wednesday, the correctional facility's population of 796 exceeded its "rated capacity" by only two inmates, state officials said. However, the prison in the past has needed to go well beyond 794 inmates, especially in busy summer months ...

The commission refused to renew two "variances," dating to 1997, which let the facility crowd an additional 53 inmates into the medium-security facility in Alden.

Other variances have been removed in recent years amid state concerns about staffing, crowding and management at prison from which the murderous Ralph "Bucky" Phillips escaped in 2006.

Howard, Collins and Green no doubt will not be fazed by the added expense of $100 a day to house inmates elsewhere. I mean, they're willing to pay  legal bills that average $425 an hour to defend the status quo at the jail and Holding Center.

Then again, as Rod Watson points out in his column today, the county is facing the prospect of paying out big bucks in wrongful death lawsuits.

After an appropriate period of mourning, lawyers must be salivating over the prospect of suing the county for suicide after suicide at a jail the feds have already warned is deficient.

It won’t take much to prepare a case; all a lawyer will have to do is read verbatim from the U. S. Justice Department lawsuit against the county. The closing argument would be fairly easy:

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the deceased might be alive today if the county had let the Justice Department inspect the jail unfettered by county chaperons—but Chris Collins and Timothy Howard said no.

The county's handling of prisoners seems to be going from bad to worse.

Tim howard Last weekend, yet another inmate hung himself at the Holding Center. That makes nine since 2003. The county has been warned that cells provide too many ways for inmates to hang themselves, but officials have failed to act.

Earlier this week, a sheriff's department sergeant and four deputies were suspended pending the outcome of an investigation into charges that a holding center inmate was roughed up.

The U.S. Justice Department, meanwhile, continues its legal efforts to end what it considers the county's maltreatment of prisoners.

Not that the month has been a total washout for the county executive. I mean, his work to welfare initiative has kicked off.

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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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A rogue's gallery of politicians

Odds & ends for a chilly Tuesday (how soon until pitchers and catchers report?) ...

I read where the tab for Chris Collins and Tim Howard's insistence that they don't have to correct the documented mistreatment of prisoners at the county jail and holding center has hit $140,000 in outside attorney fees - and the matter hasn't even come to trial yet. At $450 an hour, things are going to get worse before they get better. Do you think his handling of the situation is one of the things Collins mentions when he is out on the stump campaigning for governor?

Mayor Byron Brown went to Albany Monday to complain about Gov. David Paterson's proposed budget, which, among other things, would trim state aid to cities by up to 5 percent. The mayor told a panel of state Senators and Assembly members that, far from a cut, Albany should increase aid to Buffalo. Hmmmm. The state is facing a multi-billion-dollar deficit, while the city has enough money in the bank that Brown wants to share the wealth by cutting property taxes. So, in effect, the gut with a fat wallet wants a raise from the guy holding a tin cup. Unbelievable. The city has been on the dole so long that it now suffers from a distorted sense of entitlement.

Senate wannabe Harold Ford made the rounds in Buffalo on Sunday -- if you can call a handful of wham-bam appearances making the rounds. You've probably read The News' account of the visit. Here's what the New York Times reported. And here's what Times columnist Paul Krugman has to say about Ford - it's not flattering.

Should girlfriend-beating Hiram Monserrate get the hook from the state Senate? Yeah. Does the party that promoted his coup partner Pedro Espada deserve the grief that comes with keeping him around? Oh yeah.

On the day Barack Obama took office I wrote that while I was hoping for the best, I was prepared to be disappointed. Well, folks, I'm disappointed. But also mindful that whatever grade I might give Obama for his first year it office, it is way better than the "Z-minus" his predecessor earned for eight years running.

I have a one-word response for those ready to toss Obama overboard for a return of the Republicans: Dubya.

If you've already forgotten the nightmare, take this stroll down memory lane.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.

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Governor Chris Collins? Yeah, right.

Chris Collins wants to be governor.

It seemed like a stretch from the get-go.

Seemed like a longer stretch after his Antichrist comment.

Seemed like an even longer stretch after his lap-dance comment.

Now comes the news that Collins has raised only $220,000 for his campaign, according to his disclosure  report filed Friday with the state Board of Elections. Yeah, he's got some $1 million in the bank, but $800,000 of that he lent to his campaign.

Chris collins in front of aud While $220,000 might buy a lot of lap dances, it's not going to go very far in a race for governor. Not when the other likely candidates are raising big bucks.

David Paterson, the beleaguered governor, raised $2.2 million over the past six months and has about $3 million in the bank. Attorney General, and presumptive candidate, Andrew Cuomo has raised $6.8 million over the past six months and has $16.1 million in the bank. 

If there's any consolation, Rick Lazio, the only announced Republican, isn't doing much better than Collins. He's raised $1.1 million and has $637,357 in the bank. But at least he's raised the $1.1 million, as opposed to mostly lending it to himself.

The Albany Times Union has a nifty chart that lays how all the fund-raising compares with past gubernatorial campaigns.

Collins can argue, and I presume he will, that his fund-raising won't kick into gear until he formally announces his candidacy. Under normal circumstances, that would be true. But his mouth has damaged him such that I seriously doubt many big donors are going to be willing to whip out the checkbook.

Here's the count as I see it:

Strike One -- Collins is an unknown from Upstate.

Strike Two -- Collins is a Republican in a decidedly blue state.

Strike Three -- Collins would have a lot less money to campaign with than his Democratic opponent.

Strike Four -- His Antichrist and lap dance comments.

It seems to me, Collins has struck out, and then some, before he even gets to the plate. He's whiffed from the on-deck circle, maybe even the clubhouse.

Meanwhile, there's the matter of the job he was elected to do.

This region isn't exactly in great shape. As county executive, he could and should be leading the charge on any number of fronts. He's in no position to do any of that if he spends the coming year traipsing around the state conducting a dead-on-arrival campaign for governor.

It seems to me that Collins, or at least his constituents, would be better served if he closed his mouth and put his nose to the grindstone doing what he was elected to do. A vanity campaign for governor does us no good, unless you think Collins does less damage out of town than working out of the 16th floor of the Rath Building.

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