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They were looking to bring in uncollected money for Erie County's government. But in one of their first acts, a county official and a consultant jetted to California on a fact-finding trip that cost about $2,160 -- an amount being questioned by Comptroller Nancy A. Naples.

Consultant Lawrence W. Smith of Naperville, Ill., and Budget Division aide Joseph R. Ciffa were looking for lessons from other county governments that have set up their own collection agencies, and found three in the San Francisco area.

So off they went for three days in early January, as the Legislature's first version of a 2005 budget was unraveling. A bloc of 10 lawmakers willing to raise the sales tax by 12 percent had fallen apart, and weeks later the Legislature would gut Erie County's new "revenue collection unit," among other things, costing Ciffa his job.

Still, Ciffa and county officials are expected to try to save the unit today when they meet with the Legislature's Government Affairs Committee. Among the potential questions will be whether the trip to California was a wise use of scarce taxpayer dollars.

Naples doubts it, and says the trip to San Francisco falls outside Smith's contract, which mentions the need to gather information from cities, towns and villages within Erie County, not California.

But budget officials said in a memo to Naples' office that the "information gathered was very important and relevant to the project," and that Smith can be reimbursed for "reasonable travel expenses."

The comptroller's office has reimbursed Ciffa for his $818 in expenses and Smith's $1,349, but Naples has reserved the right to subtract Smith's costs from his future payments if the travel is deemed outside his contract.

County Executive Joel A. Giambra reasons that Erie County passes up millions of dollars in overdue bills -- such as child-support penalties, or money due to Erie County Medical Center -- because it lacks the expertise of a collection agency.

His solution is to set up the county's own collection unit, to be led by Ciffa, who has industry experience. The unit, for a fee, would collect for any other local government that wanted its service. But first, Ciffa needed the help of a consultant he knew -- Smith -- whose contract was approved by the Legislature late last year after much lobbying by Giambra.

"It's penny-wise and pound-foolish for anyone to question what we are trying to do," Giambra said in October. "For years, they have been leaving millions of dollars on the table, and no one has said boo about it."

Smith can charge $185 an hour plus travel expenses. His contract will max out at $120,000. So far, he has billed about $35,000. His plan calls for collection operations to begin June 1, with a five-person office. Its initial client will be the Probation Department, which will need help collecting the fees it wants to charge people under its supervision.


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