Chris Collins and the Dictatorship of Petty Bureaucracy
In March 2007, the Erie County Republican Party unanimously endorsed Chris Collins as its candidate for County Executive. After two Giambra terms, replete with cheap politicking and fiscal disasters, Collins seemed to be a successful guy with novel ideas on how to take the county forward. He pledged to reform county government, rebuild our economy, and restore jobs. I predicted that he would win as early as April of that year.
During the campaign, it was revealed that Collins had loaned money to an East Side slumlord and the debt went bad. When that happened, Collins could have foreclosed and re-sold the properties, or write it off and let them rot. Collins chose the latter, and it’s indicative of his complete lack of any empathy or engagement on urban issues.
He did win, and within the first 12 hours he pledged to hire a “Six Sigma black belt” at tremendous public expense to implement what average people call “common sense”. He eventually hired six-figure Six Sigma people. He even hired someone at over $100,000 to determine how to use county space. But he was doing good, simple things, too. Things that didn’t need million-dollar consultants. However, in looking back on his first 100 days, there was a lot of stuff I liked.
By July 2008, top people were leaving his administration. By August, it was becoming clear that Collins wasn’t one of us. He was one of them. Let’s call it the dictatorship of the bureaucrats – elected officials and their hangers-on cutting petty deals over petty things, rather than addressing the big picture and providing this region with a vision.
Here, we are run by people like Brown and Casey, who are busy trying to engineer a party-political coup (and failing), or by people like Chris Collins who sweats the small stuff just fine (GPS in cars, running government “like a business”), but doesn’t really have any sort of overall vision for what he wants WNY to become. Brown and Casey are hacky members of a cliquey politburo; Collins is bureaucrat-in-chief.
He managed to do an end run around a sleepy legislature to get rid of Tim Kennedy’s Apprenticeship Law. Under the law, companies bidding on county-funded construction work over a certain dollar amount had to maintain and participate in a state-certified apprenticeship program to teach young workers a trade. As a commenter below notes, the program “demonstrates a commitment from a contractor the willingness to invest in our own area’s youth. Also, the program provides for the base and structure that will allow for a competent, unbiased and impartial approach to ensure that when a graduate of the program earns the title of journeyman that they are indeed schooled in all of the requisite work a person with that title should be able to perform within a specified jurisdiction. Finally, the law would ensure that New York State and local residents had a better chance of being employed on county projects. The law was in fact largely passed due the discovery of circa 10 illegal workers being found performing asbestos removal in the Rath Building after the award of a contract to do the work to an out of town contractor.”
People like Chris Collins and Carl Paladino vehemently opposed the law for a reason and a pretext – the reason was that it helped keep private-sector union trades strong, which is anathema to Buffalo’s puny plutocrats. The pretext was that it drove up the cost of this sort of work. Yet as far as anyone can tell, there doesn’t seem to have been some sudden surge in construction since – and due to its – repeal. It’s part of the contemporary Republican ethos to destroy any protection for workers, whether it be good benefits, a living wage, and collective bargaining rights – the right of management and owners to dictate the terms of employment as an adhesion contract with absolutely zero regulation over wages and conditions; a reversion to the days of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
Taxes. Chris Collins pledged to lower them. Even today, he rails against job-killing high taxes. Are you totally incensed by Mark Poloncarz’s proposed 2013 budget, which includes a 3.4% property tax hike? Then Chris Collins’ October 2008 3.6% tax hike proposal must have really made you angry. You must have been even more outraged with what happened later on, when he ended up demanding a 4.8% tax hike. Collins started cutting programs that help the urban poor and diverting money to fixing up suburban roads, calling them a quality of life issue. It was soon revealed that Collins kept a $16 million Medicaid liability off the books.
In the meantime, there was no explanation why 10 months’ worth of Six Sigma implementation at great public cost had not resulted in any palpable cost savings. The Democratic legislature amended Collins’ proposed budget to change its priorities and decrease the tax hike. Collins claims that Six Sigma saved a couple million dollars. Never has that claim been audited, reviewed, or backed up with any facts or evidence. By all accounts, it cost taxpayers a couple million dollars, and few people know that Collins isn’t even certified as a Six Sigma anything. It’s as if government was being run by a malevolent, trendy management tome.
In the end, it was a choice between a Collins-backed 4.8% property tax hike, and the Legislature’s 0.0% hike. A Supreme Court Justice ruled that taxes would go up 1.6%. Chris Collins didn’t just raise your taxes, he went to court to make sure he could do it.
Meanwhile, you’ve probably heard Collins rail against the Obama stimulus, a collection of tax cuts and appropriations for public works; Keynesian pump-priming to address a growing crisis of falling economic demand. Back in 2009, however, Collins sang the stimulus’ praises.
“As County Executive, I believe strongly that infrastructure improvements are critical to the growth of Erie County,” said Erie County Executive Chris Collins. “At a time when county resources are scarce, a possible injection of federal dollars could have a tremendous impact on Erie County’s aging and neglected infrastructure. Funding for even a fraction of these projects would represent a significant investment in our community, the opportunity to hire thousands of local workers, and reduce our need for capital borrowing in the future.”
Senator Schumer made sure that the county received $750,000 in stimulus funding to balance the budget and offset Medicaid expenses. When all was said and done, Collins has $41 million in Obama stimulus money to thank for padding the county’s coffers. Money that was intended to be used to help spur demand and create jobs was instead shunted – like Giambra’s tobacco settlement money – into one-shot salves for budgetary shortfalls. He was downright cavalier about sitting on a pool of free money that was supposed to be put into the economy.
Unlike in his private business affairs, County Executive Collins was subject to financial oversight. This was not something he enjoyed, and he pushed vindictive cuts to the Comptroller’s office, which would have laid waste to any meaningful accountability for what Collins was doing.
Frankly, someone should ask Collins’ former spokesman, Stefan Mychajliw – who is now himself running for County Comptroller – what he thinks about what Collins tried to do to then-Comptroller Poloncarz’s office’s ability to do its job.
In April 2009, Collins completely disregarded an effort to implement a regional framework for planning and growth in a region where we have sprawl without population growth. Again- a lack of vision in favor of bureaucratic stasis. But his gamesmanship became epic, whereby the Legislature would legally override a Collins veto, and Collins would respond by simply jettisoning democratic procedure aside and declaring the override “null and void”.
Throughout his administration, Chris Collins was fighting the Justice Department, which demanded that the county improve conditions in its jails. 2009 brought a legislative election, and Collins was set on jury-rigging the system in order to ensure that the second half of his term would be less litigious. He hired Kathy Konst as part of a ploy to leave the (D) line unoccupied. Collins pick Dino Fudoli went to court to keep his Democratic opponent’s name off the ballot. Fundamentally undemocratic gamesmanship, and it should taint Collins and Fudoli in perpetuity. Hell, Collins used an official Twitter account for electioneering purposes.
Collins’ proposed 2010 budget played with the numbers to keep taxes steady, but no spending was cut. None.
Most of you will remember his horrible thing Collins said, calling Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver the “anti-Christ”. It wasn’t the first time he used it, and it was a theme that Carl Paladino picked up on the following year, with similar electoral effect. Even though Collins had a good 2009 election, it didn’t make him happy; it made him angry. But as 2010 began, Erie County finally settled its disputes over payments to ECMC. Soon after that, Collins conspired with the Mayor’s people and Pigeon’s people to obtain a de facto Republican majority on the Legislature. All it took was Barbara Miller-Williams, Christina Bove, and Tim Kennedy to agree to join a so-called “reform coalition”, which reformed nothing. Except hirings and firings. Tim Kennedy did this in spite of Collins’ destruction of his beloved Apprenticeship Law, in order to secure the Independence Party line and be elevated to the State Senate.
In January 2010, Collins was again caught with his foot in his mouth, having asked Republican fundraiser Laura Montante Zaepfel to give him a “lapdance” before she could get to her seat at the State of the State address. Next on his agenda was to take away day care benefits from the working poor in Buffalo and WNY. But we did finally get rid of the Convention Center’s FailSign. When not declaring legislative veto overrides “null and void”, Collins decided simply to refuse to fund things he didn’t like. Nevertheless, in running government like a failing, closely-held business, Collins created new jobs for pet projects, didn’t cut spending overall, and was facing a massive 2011 deficit. At least he had a compliant, but horribly run legislature.
Collins then turned his ire towards the culturals, and this teed off the central theme of the 2011 County Executive race. The budget process in late 2010 was uglier than ever, and more shenanigan-laden than usual.
Six Sigma – Collins claims it worked. How did it work? The control board granted the county about $1.1 million in efficiency grants to set the program up. Six Sigma salaries: just over $470,000. Six Sigma fringe (60%): Just over $280,000. Vendors (5 vendors, including UB): Just over $610,000. TOTAL: Just over $1.37 million. How much did it save? You can hear the crickets chirping.
Debating Kathy Hochul, Collins blasted the Obama administration for “picking winners and losers” by having the government take GM and Chrysler bankrupt and using public money to invest in those companies and effectively bailing them out. By doing so, about a million jobs were directly saved, keeping the economy from going from recession to depressionary spiral. But Collins didn’t have a problem using the Erie County IDA to pick winners and losers, did he? That uses public money to help private business. He even went so far as to reward Paladino crony Rus Thompson with a sweetheart IDA loan for his cement truck business. Must be nice to have friends on the IDA like Chris Collins and his neighbor, Jane Corwin’s husband. At the CVB, Collins withheld funding until he packed it with his hand-picked people – after that, he increased its budget. For real. Under Collins, the IDA specialized in granting money and tax breaks to businesses that didn’t create many jobs, moved businesses around from town to town.
When Chris Lee got caught shirtless on Craigslist, soliciting dates from people not his wife, a scramble to replace him ensued. David Bellavia had a deal that he would be next when Lee was done. Lee was done. Yet Chris Collins and Carl Paladino tried to intimidate Bellavia out of the race. It was like something out of Goodfellas.
2011 saw Collins and Poloncarz do battle. As usual, Collins and the Republicans cut a deal with Mayor Brown in an effort to depress city turnout. In July 2011, Collins got caught marching at the front of the July 4th parade in Lancaster – even ahead of the flag and veterans. When polls showed that Collins wasn’t doing well, he called the polls a pack of lies. He went out of his way to say that downstate was no friend of upstate’s. Don’t forget that Collins got caught parking illegally several times – including using a spot reserved for the disabled.
And Collins left a mess. In July 2012, Poloncarz revealed,
In the first six months of my term alone, we have identified more than $50 million in unanticipated expense and declining revenue projections not included in Mr. Collins’ 2012 Budget or Four-Year Financial Plan – many of which he, in all likelihood, knew about but failed to address and chose to hide from me as comptroller, the legislature and even the control board.
After leaving office, Collins was caught using his Rath Building office to hold private business meetings to intimidate investors. In July 2012, Collins basically said that people don’t die from breast and prostate cancer anymore. Seriously. He disrespectfully refused to debate his primary opponent. He apparently bought Facebook likes. Collins is a big backer of the Ryan budget. Collins has not released any of his tax returns to the voters.
Chris Collins can say “Barack Obama” and “Nancy Pelosi” every minute of every hour. He can pretend to be some conservative Republican who will somehow magically work with people across the aisle – something he only did locally when he could derive some short-term political benefit therefrom; something he only did when he could exert control over them and the legislative process through his proxy, Barbara Miller-Williams. Kathy Hochul’s record stands on its own merits. So does Chris Collins’ record, such as it is.
In the end, Chris Collins did not reform county government – in fact, he resisted and blocked reforms almost routinely (another “r”); he did not rebuild the local economy, but ensured that stimulus funds were hoarded to artificially improve his balance sheet; and he did not reduce – but raised – taxes.