Buffalo News: Comptroller stops check to county’s new attorney

March 18, 2011
By Matthew Spina

Erie County’s first paycheck to its new county attorney was halted Thursday by aides to Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz, who said the salary was never legally set at $150,000 a year, contrary to what County Executive Chris Collins contends.

Collins maintains that he can pay Jeremy A. Colby the $150,000-a-year salary he offered him and instructed his Personnel Department to compute his paychecks based on that figure.

Poloncarz, however, says the Legislature had cut the salary to about $99,000, and he will only process checks based on that annual total.

While the comptroller cannot set a salary, he can stop checks or, in Colby’s case, halt direct-deposit transfers. So Colby’s gross of $2,881 for his first 40 hours of work will not reach his personal account today, his first payday since the Legislature confirmed him 11 days ago. He chose not to comment on the issue Thursday.

The Comptroller’s Office sent two letters this month to John W. Greenan, the Collins-appointed personnel commissioner, telling him that it intended to halt the pay if Collins paid Colby $150,000 a year —$25,000 more than Collins paid his first county attorney, Cheryl A. Green.

“Our office disagrees with the county executive’s assertion that he can unilaterally set the attorney’s rate of pay in any amount of his choosing,” a Poloncarz aide said in one of the letters.

The question of the county attorney’s salary and other issues from the 2011 budget-adoption process has been in court for months. A few Legislature Democrats filed a lawsuit when the county executive asserted more budget authority than the County Charter appears to give him.

The Democrats won in the first round, though State Supreme Court Justice Joseph R. Glownia has agreed to hear the Collins arguments again in coming weeks.

County executives have long operated on the County Charter’s restriction that they can only veto spending that a Legislature adds to an annual budget and may not veto the Legislature’s spending cuts.

Collins, however, declared the Legislature’s cuts “null and void” because, to him, they appear to violate other laws, and he should not have to abide by the cuts.

When it cut the county attorney’s proposed pay in the 2011 budget, the Legislature deleted the position that Collins had budgeted at $150,000 and created a budget line for a county attorney earning about $99,000, the starting salary under the county’s pay grades.

Collins vetoed the $99,000 salary, viewing it as additional spending, and declared the Legislature’s cutting of the $150,000 job null and void because the County Charter requires that there be a county attorney.

Even after Glownia ruled that the County Charter does not give a county executive authority to declare cuts null and void, Collins reasoned that he could still pay the $150,000 salary, and he set aside other legislative changes to his budget as well when he computed the tax rate.

Collins spokesman Grant Loomis said the Collins team contends that the county attorney’s post is not even in the 2011 budget, which is illegal since the County Charter requires one. They contend that the last legal act by the county’s budget-making officials applies — Collins’ establishment of the post at $150,000.

Buffalo News Editorial: $99,000 it is

March 18, 2011

When it comes to the price of a starting county attorney, we’re going to have to side with Erie County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz.

No offense meant to Jeremy A. Colby, the new chief legal counsel for, as he put it, a$1 billion entity. It’s just that the legislative body made a decision in cutting the county executive’s spending, which is allowed, and involves the county attorney’s salary. It’s not personal, just business. Albeit, political business with taxpayers footing the bill.

Poloncarz refuses to pay the new county attorney the $150,000-a-year salary the county executive promised. Instead, he’ll cut a check reflective of the Legislature’s authorized$99,000 a year. Frankly, we can see the case for the higher salary; $99,000 a year is barely above starting salaries for law school graduates in this area. Still, the budget allows only$99,000.

Normally, that would be the end of an argument if not for the strong personalities involved.

Collins has declared the county attorney’s salary “null and void,” on the premise that the cut from his proposed six-figure salary for the position down to a high-five figure violated a legal technicality. He’s even willing to reargue his case in court. Poloncarz is standing firm.

If any of this sounds familiar, don’t worry. It’s not you. Early this year, Collins made clear his intentions to collect

roughly$8 million more in property taxes than he would have had he complied with Supreme Court Justice Joseph R. Glownia’s ruling and accepted the Legislature’s cuts to the 2011 budget.

The Legislature Democrats found it necessary to take the county executive to court to get him to follow their budget decisions. Glownia, in our opinion quite graciously, has agreed to hear the case again given the rushed first court arguments during a heated budget discussion. But the judge will not set aside his ruling, in the meantime.

No matter, the Collins administration has an answer to the possibility that the judge may rule that the county charter does not allow a county executive to declare the cuts null and void. The answer?An appeal, of course.

Meanwhile, what about that nearly $8 million more in the property tax levy Collins set than the Legislature’s budget required? It includes nearly $51,000 to make up the difference in the pay dispute for the county attorney.

How ironic.

Buffalo News: $150,000 for attorney? Poloncarz balks

March 9, 2011
By Matthew Spina

Erie County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz, who signs the county’s checks, says he will pay the new county attorney only the Legislature-authorized $99,000 a year, not the $150,000 that the county executive promised.

“Our office disagrees with the county executive’s assertion that he can unilaterally set the rate of pay for the attorney in any amount of his choosing,” Poloncarz said Tuesday.

He said his office will process Jeremy A. Colby’s paychecks only if calculated at an annual salary of $99,226 — the amount county lawmakers allowed when they adopted the Erie County budget for 2011.

As expected, the county executive’s team disagrees with Poloncarz.

“Once again, it appears Mr. Poloncarz needs to be reminded what his job is,” said Grant Loomis, a spokesman for County Executive Chris Collins.

He said the county Personnel Department — which the county executive controls — sets pay rates, not the comptroller.

But a Poloncarz aide countered by saying the comptroller issues the county’s checks. And until the matter is resolved, Poloncarz sees no way to pay Colby, a Lancaster resident, more than $99,226 a year.

During his recent confirmation hearing, Colby said he was expecting the $150,000 a year that Collins offered. He said he didn’t think the amount was too much for the chief legal counsel of a $1 billion entity and mentioned that he made more as a partner with the Webster Szanyi law firm.

The 12 county lawmakers attending a special session Tuesday, Colby’s first day, confirmed him as the new county attorney.

He succeeds Cheryl A. Green, who resigned last summer as head of the Law Department, which defends the government from a host of claims, processes contracts and runs legal interference for elected leaders, especially the county executive.

Here’s how the latest county drama began in the weeks before Colby was hired:

* In drafting his 2011 budget, Collins set the salary at $150,000, arguing he needed to offer that much to draw a well-qualified attorney. Taxpayers had paid Green about $125,000 a year.

* As the Legislature reviewed the budget, a majority of lawmakers cut the amount to the level that the county’s pay grades establish for a starting county attorney: $99,226.

* The county executive, who under county rules cannot veto a Legislature’s cuts in spending, declared the cut to the county attorney’s salary “null and void.” To Collins, the cut violated a legal technicality so he shouldn’t have to follow it.

He lost on that argument and the arguments that supported his other “null and void” declarations when Legislature Democrats took him to court to require him to follow their budget decisions.

State Supreme Court Justice Joseph R. Glownia recently agreed to hear the Collins case again because the first court arguments were hastily arranged during the budget-adoption maelstrom. However, Glownia refused to set aside his ruling in the meantime. The Collins team says that it will appeal if he rules again that the County Charter does not allow a county executive to declare cuts null and void.

* Meanwhile, Collins ignored much of Glownia’s decision — and the Legislature’s cuts — when he set the 2011 property tax rate. He set the rate to collect nearly $8 million more than the Legislature’s budget required. That $8 million includes the almost $51,000 in dispute for the county attorney.

“The salary at $150,000 is reflected in the tax levy,” said Loomis, the Collins spokesman. Loomis noted Tuesday that Legislature Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo, certified the property tax levy, one of the annual duties that come with the position.

With the court case expected to take months, Poloncarz has said that he is willing to discuss the matter further with Collins or his lawyers and that they would have at least several days to do so before Colby would receive his first check.

Collins also can ask the Legislature to alter the 2011 budget to allow the higher salary. The Legislature often goes along with midyear budget changes.

Buffalo News: Chris Collins on Wisconsin

February 28, 2011
By Bob McCarthy

There may be nobody in New York State more focused on faraway Wisconsin these days than County Executive Chris Collins.

That’s because if ever two political leaders were more simpatico in dealing with municipal unions, it would be Collins and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

“What they’re doing is potentially revolutionary,” Collins said of Wisconsin last week. “It’s what taxpayers are demanding, and it’s what we’re sure not delivering in New York State.”

Like Walker, Collins was elected on promises of new and tough dealings with municipal unions. And like Walker, he takes a hard line in contract negotiations that he believes are revolutionary in their own right. That includes offers to the county’s four top unions featuring givebacks on summer hours, loss of retiree health insurance for new hires and health insurance contributions for new hires.

In return, for the two unions that accepted his offer (two others overwhelmingly turned thumbs down), 3 percent pay hikes were reflected in their checks.

“This is not about take-home pay,” he said, “but benefits that are unaffordable, unsustainable and unavailable for the people who pay for them.”

Management, Collins and Walker both say, should “take control” of such matters — leaving wages to the bargaining table.

Walker takes it further—demanding an end to collective bargaining. And Collins agrees.

“Gov. Walker recognizes you just can’t negotiate these things,” he said. “These people are in denial. They want to go back to ‘Leave it to Beaver’ days. I’m sorry. Those days are gone.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo talks about the same things. But this is New York, where the Triborough Amendment allows contracts to continue in effect after their lapse.

Still, when you come right down to it, Cuomo will fix his $10 billion deficit because the state Constitution says he must. And he will do it without nixing collective bargaining.

While Cuomo’s stance is gaining generally good reviews even from conservatives, Collins is far from satisfied. He thinks the same situation will result from the same cause next year.

“Instead of basic reform of Medicaid or repeal of binding arbitration and Triborough,” the county executive said, “he’s talking about new taxes on hospitals and cuts in education. There’s a lot of rhetoric, but as we go through that budget, it’s loaded with cost sharing.”

But doesn’t the Walker approach amount to good, old-fashioned union busting, County Executive Collins?

Municipalities don’t go out of business or move away, Collins counters, they simply raise taxes to cover costs. Then he adds a favorite argument — that all of this is codified into law by politicians dependent on municipal unions for contributions.

But once again, is it union busting? “I support what the governor is doing,” the county executive answered. “Frankly, in the real world, there is no other way.”

This is all especially pertinent as Republican Collins seeks re-election in a part of the world that’s not only heavily Democratic but still unionized. This is the same Erie County that liked his message in 2007, but seems to like Cuomo, too.

Collins will tell voters this fall that he did what he said he would do as he runs a 2011 campaign of “promises made, promises kept.” It will now prove interesting in this election year if he still dwells on ideas like ending collective bargaining.

If he is successful in Democratic and unionized Erie County, the bet here is that he would like to try the same ideas in Democratic and unionized New York State.

And the bet is also that he believes the best venue for that venture just might be that big house on Albany’s Eagle Street.