Republican Christopher C. Collins will tell anyone who listens that voters have a clear, black-and-white, no-shades-of-gray choice this election.
The truth is that he and Democrat James P. Keane agree more than they disagree. Neither candidate is promising an immediate tax cut and both have pledged to cut spending if elected county executive.
Yes, they differ on a few major issues -- the county apprenticeship law and the merger of Kaleida Health and Erie County Medical Center -- but they share almost identical strategies for increasing aid to cultural and tourism groups.
If there's a glaring contrast, it may be in where they come from -- government versus business -- and in how they would lead Erie County's largest government.
One thing is certain. Whoever wins will have to address a wide range of problems and opportunities.
To get a sense of how they might tackle the issues that can make or break a politician, The Buffalo News asked them 20 questions. Here is a compilation of their responses, which were published over the last few weeks.
>Question 1: County Executive Joel A. Giambra has championed the idea of an expanded Erie Community College campus downtown, and the County Legislature has taken some initial steps in support of that strategy. Would you continue the project if elected?
"Bad idea," said the Clarence Republican, who is part owner of 11 private companies. "It really doesn't make sense. That's like someone saying, 'I'm going to put a big addition on my house and, oh, by the way, my roof is leaking and my furnace is broken.' "
In Collins' eyes, the county's priority should be improvements to ECC's North and South campuses. He questions the county's ability to afford its share of the multimillion-dollar project. He also thinks the shift in investment downtown would lead to more students going across the border to Niagara County Community College.
"I'm skeptical of everything this guy [Giambra] says," said the South Buffalo Democrat, who was deputy county executive under Dennis T. Gorski.
Keane wants to focus first on improvements to the ECC North Campus. He thinks an expanded downtown campus may eventually be viable but not right away, especially if it means borrowing money to finance it.
"I don't know that this project, as it's set up now, is affordable. I'm going to be cautious."
Keane, on a related note, said he hopes to persuade the University at Buffalo to expand its presence downtown.
>Question 2: Erie County officials have weighed the pros and cons of building a new downtown convention center for years. Do you favor or oppose a new convention center?
"It would be on my radar screen, but I'm very realistic," he said. "I know we can't afford it right away."
Keane led the campaign for a new convention center -- more than twice the size of the current one -- in the late 1990s.
"We were about to pull the trigger on that," he said. "We had the cash and everyone was on the same page."
But when Gorski lost in 1999, the project died. Keane said the county's fiscal condition has deteriorated since then, so a new convention center will have to wait until the county has money to build it.
"I'm a realist," he said. "The thought of a grandiose, expensive convention center is not realistic or a good use of our money."
Collins said the likelihood that Buffalo will compete with large convention cities such as Chicago and San Diego is years away. He wants the county's convention and tourism officials to focus on smaller niche conventions.
"When I go into bankrupt companies, I say, 'What have I got today and how am I going to make improvements tomorrow?' "
It's possible that in the future, Collins said, if Buffalo's waterfront development takes off, there may be a need for a new convention center.
>Question 3: Giambra has resisted a new county law that forces contractors on county jobs to have apprentice-training programs in place. Giambra says the law drives up construction costs and favors union contractors over nonunion. Will you follow the law or challenge it?
"How can you defend the apprenticeship program? It blocks out nonunion contractors and drives the cost of construction up," he said.
Collins said he would use his bully pulpit as county executive to challenge lawmakers who support the law and, if necessary, find people to run against them when they come up for re-election.
"I will challenge any legislator to justify the apprenticeship program in terms of why that's best for the taxpayer. It is best for the union. Absolutely."
He said his election next month will serve as a message that the public agrees with his opposition to the law.
"It's not going to be repealed," he said of the law. "What I would like to see is people stop whining about it."
Keane, who enjoys widespread support among labor unions, thinks the law is well-intentioned and, if followed, would lead to more apprenticeship programs and a better-trained work force.
He dismisses the notion that the law drives up costs or unfairly helps union contractors.
"What's wrong with training people? We've got enough unemployment here, we should be hiring our own people here. Let's train them."
>Question 4: The Erie County Holding Center and Erie County Correctional Facility are dealing with crowding issues, and have been for years. Do you think Erie County needs a new jail?
"This is going to be a huge challenge," he said.
Keane said he left his job as the No. 2 man to Gorski in 1999, and one of the many unfinished projects was the need for more jail beds.
"We find ourselves, eight years later, in the same boat, maybe worse."
Keane is against a brand new jail but thinks one or more dormitory-style additions to the current jail in Alden is a good alternative. He said the dormitories could be used to house nonviolent inmates, including those serving only weekends.
He also supports the use of electronic-monitoring bracelets for prisoners serving time at home.
"I would not support building a new one. I think we can expand what we have," he said.
Collins thinks part of the solution is to increase the number of county probation officers. He says an improved and expanded Probation Department will result in judges sending fewer people to jail.
The other part of the solution, he said, is to expand the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden, one of two county jails.
"Clearly, they're overcrowded," said Collins. "We're going to have to put some money into the jails."
>Question 5: Most of Erie County's employees are working under expired union contracts. Will you try to negotiate new contracts and, if so, will you follow Giambra's strategy of requiring work rule or benefit concessions in return for pay raises?
"They're unaffordable and unsustainable," he said of the county's municipal union contracts.
Collins wants to negotiate new deals and said his philosophy in bargaining with the county's unions is to be fair to both employees and taxpayers.
His "win-win" strategy is to offer a pay raise in return for concessions that might be more palatable to union members. He mentioned holidays, paid lunch breaks and summer hours as three possibilities.
"What if I gave them 75 cents on the dollar in extra pay," he said of the savings from work rule changes. "I bet 10 out of 10 would take the extra money."
"They're going to have to be part of the solution even though they weren't part of the cause," he said.
Keane thinks he can bargain new union contracts with pay raises but stopped short of offering specifics. He said he has no intention of negotiating through the media.
He did, however, repeat his pledge that fiscal stability will be one of his two major priorities -- the other is job creation -- if he's elected in November.
"Union contracts need to reflect what we can afford. I've told [union leaders] that and they understand that."
>Question 6: The Berger Commission recommended a merger of Kaleida Health and Erie County Medical Center. Do you favor that merger and what role would you play in the consolidation talks?
"When you're talking about closing hospitals, man, nothing is more important to a community than closing a hospital. I, for example, have to question the wisdom of closing St. Joe's."
Keane stopped short of endorsing the merger of ECMC and Kaleida and indicated he wants to see the final plan before taking a position.
"If their mission has to change, I'm all for it. But you know what? You have to have a presence at Delavan and Grider. It's a great campus that needs to be redeveloped."
"I think we're headed down the proper path. I firmly believe the Berger Commission did the right thing."
Collins thinks the merger of ECMC and Kaleida will ultimately succeed and the result will be a more cost-effective, better-quality hospital system.
"It's playing out exactly as I would have hoped."
Collins, who has toured both facilities and met with the heads of both systems, acknowledges there are touchy issues, most notably the differences in pay and benefits between nurses at Kaleida and ECMC.
>Question 7: Giambra was criticized for hiring an old friend to drive his county-owned car at a salary of $80,000 a year. Do you intend to use a taxpayer-financed car or driver?
"No and no. I'm too much of an A personality to have someone else drive me. It drives me nuts. I'm a back-seat driver."
Collins said his campaign aides often joke about his obsession for driving himself from appointment to appointment.
"I will drive my own car. The little things matter. I will not have a county-owned car and I will not have a chauffeur."
Keane also plans to reduce the county vehicle fleet and limit the use of county-owned cell phones to emergency personnel.
>Question 8: What will be your approach to the issue of regionalism, and what county services do you think might be ripe for consolidation?
"We have too much government. Way too much government."
Keane wants to get away from the top-down approach to regionalism and focus on consolidations that both sides want. He also thinks the city-county parks consolidation can be saved.
"I want to get the lower-hanging fruit. I think we can have some service agreements, but I would stay away from the things that press on the emotional buttons of people."
Keane thinks the county's best opportunities may be found in an upcoming study by a state task force on government efficiency headed by former Lt. Gov. Stanley Lundine.
"Regionalism around here has taken on a bad meaning. The result is there's not a level of trust today. We have to earn that back."
Collins said the problem is that Giambra viewed regionalism as a single, metropolitan government -- an unrealistic goal. The result is that town, city and village officials are now skeptical of the concept.
"My administration will focus on rebuilding that trust and, frankly, taking the easy ones first."
Collins said the current city-county parks agreement could work if the two sides renegotiate a more suitable agreement. He also thinks snow plowing is another opportunity.
>Question 9: The Erie County Water Authority is a home to patronage jobs for Democrats and Republicans because of its close ties to the county's political party chairmen. Do you think this is a problem and, if so, what will you do about the practice?
"I'll have no tolerance for patronage anywhere. I'm running to serve the taxpayer. Period. No special interests."
Collins acknowledges the county executive has little control over the authority, but promises to challenge its leadership to become more efficient.
"I may not be a popular guy when it comes to some of these patronage positions."
He said he will urge the authority to use benchmarking, a popular business practice.
"There needs to be change. All authorities in New York State, as far as I'm concerned, have run amok. They need to be reborn."
Keane wants to explore the possibility of turning the Water Authority into a county department accountable to the county executive and Legislature.
"It performs a county function. That's something that could be looked at."
>Question 10: The next county executive may be asked to start new lease negotiations with the Buffalo Bills, since the current agreement expires at the end of the 2012 season. Do you think more taxpayer resources should be extended to keep the Bills in Erie County, or is the current lease generous enough?
"It's a huge priority. They're important to the economic well-being of this community, and the emotional ties our community has to its professional sports franchise border on the incredible."
Keane boasts of his role in negotiating the current Bills' lease. "I've got some experience along those lines that I can use."
He said it's far too early to speculate on whether more taxpayer money will be needed to keep the Bills in Orchard Park.
Keane also said he would seek the advice and involvement of Buffalo's three pro sports franchise owners -- Jeremy Jacobs Sr., Robert Rich Jr. and B. Thomas Golisano.
"We have to keep them here. It is universally recognized that the Buffalo Bills define Western New York and Buffalo to much of the country."
Collins said he can't envision a scenario where the Bills don't stay at Ralph Wilson Stadium, but indicated it was far too early to speculate on whether more taxpayer money will be needed to keep them here.
"There are so many unknowns. "It would be inappropriate to suppose what might be needed."
He said he expects New York State to play a major role in any financial incentives that may be required as part of a new lease.
>Question 11: Do you think the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority is now justified in being a hard control board?
"The politicians, the people in charge, have not represented the taxpayers, and that's why the control board is here. Without a hard control board, heaven help us what else might have been done."
Collins said the county's low credit rating is, perhaps, the biggest reason why a control board with clout is needed right now. He also pointed to the increase in the county sales tax and the drastic cutback in some county services.
"I think they're unfortunately necessary, as proven by our bond rating, the fact that we don't have lifeguards at county beaches and the three-quarters of a percent increase in the sales tax."
"We didn't need adult supervision when I was deputy county executive."
Keane said the control board expanded its power last year because of mismanagement at the highest levels of county government, a problem he plans to remedy. He promises to cooperate with the board, and said the eventual result will be a soft board.
"We're going to run the county in a business-like way that ensures we don't need them. They'll be in an advisory role very shortly."
>Question 12: Should towns or villages without their own police departments pay extra to receive patrol services from the Sheriff's Department?
"It's a bad idea. Our rural communities, in my opinion, don't get a lot in return for their county tax dollars."
Keane said he would oppose a separate fee for sheriff's patrols or any effort to cut back on rural road patrols. He said his ultimate goal is to expand, not reduce, road patrols.
"I'm totally opposed to any of that discussion. It's a red herring, frankly."
Collins said it's absurd to pick out one county service and suggest that, because it benefits one municipality more than another, a separate fee should be charged to the town or village that uses it.
"It's that kind of divisive, me-versus-you mind-set that's destructive. It's just wrong, and I'm not going to do it."
>Question 13: Do you support or oppose the current inner harbor development, and what's your position on the use of taxpayer money for projects like Bass Pro?
"A key cornerstone to our development the next 20 years is the waterfront, and there will be a role for the county to play."
Collins said he supports the inner harbor project as it's planned now, including a new Bass Pro store on the site of Memorial Auditorium.
He said he can envision the county using taxpayer-financed assistance as a way of stimulating more waterfront development.
"The county has a place at the table. The lead? No. A place at the table? Yes."
"I guarantee you the inner harbor project will either be completed or near completion my first term in office."
Keane boasts of his close relationship with Rep. Brian Higgins, one of the forces behind the inner harbor, and said he supports keeping Bass Pro at the Memorial Auditorium site.
"I would like to see Bass Pro become part of the redevelopment of downtown Buffalo. We should continue to try to make them part of the development of our community."
Keane said he isn't opposed to the use of taxpayer incentives but wants them limited to projects that create real value.
>Question 14: Should arts and cultural groups be assured they will receive 3 percent of the county's property tax revenue each year, and should the Convention and Visitors Bureau receive all of the Erie County bed tax to finance its efforts to draw tourists?
"We are blessed with some of the great, great performing arts and cultural facilities you'll find anywhere."
Keane views the arts as an essential component in the region's economic engine, not to mention an important quality-of-life amenity.
He supports setting aside up to 3 percent of the tax levy for local arts and cultural groups and giving 100 percent of the county's bed tax revenue to the bureau. "We have to invest in it and promote it."
"I agree." Collins said the 3 percent commitment is manageable given the county's recent history of setting aside a similar amount of money each year. He also supports a full dedication of the bed tax to the Visitors Bureau.
He thinks a long-term commitment by the county will allow arts and cultural groups to develop five- and 10-year strategic plans that will help them attract strong leaders and grow.
"It's real hard to attract the talent you need if you're saying, 'but I can't tell you how how my funding's going to be next year.' "
>Question 15: How will you guarantee that more dollars are spent improving county government's road and bridge network?
"As bad as some of us think they are, they're in better shape today than they were eight years ago."
Collins said federal highway ratings back him up. He also pointed to county bridges currently closed in Akron and Newstead. But Collins does not favor setting aside a dedicated portion of the sales tax for roads and bridges.
"What we don't need more of are mandates that we self create. The more flexibility we have, the better."
"We need to develop a pay-as-you-go program."
Keane wants to duplicate Gorski's strategy for roads and bridges, a combination of borrowing money and setting aside cash.
"That's what we need to do again, and that's what we're going to do again."
Keane said the allegations that Gorski neglected roads and bridges reminds him of that famous Mark Twain quote: "There are lies, damned lies and statistics."
>Question 16: Do you favor the creation of a county or regional planning board to limit suburban sprawl and promote development closer to the urban core?
"I favor the re-establishment of the Erie Niagara Regional Planning Board."
Keane also wants to explore the possibility that the board could be expanded to include other neighboring counties.
"I think it's vital to our future that we start thinking as a region, planning as a region and acting as a region."
He views sprawl as a serious issue and supports the conclusions outlined in the Framework for Regional Growth.
"If politicians hadn't wrecked Western New York, we wouldn't be worried about sprawl."
Collins acknowledges the region's 40-year economic decline, but says it's time to put aside the community cynicism.
"The job I'm signing up for is not to be county executive of a county in decline. We've become so cynical and defeatist, we've accepted continued decline as our fate."
Collins favors a regional approach to planning, especially when it comes to economic development.
>Question 17: Will you cut county spending? And, if so, please specify where and how you plan to reduce expenses.
"I clearly envision a smaller county government that delivers a higher quality of service with less people."
Collins said he doesn't plan to lay off employees but he does plan to cut jobs through attrition. His strategy of doing more with less hinges on a popular business practice known as Six Sigma, a disciplined, data-driven approach to eliminating problems, defects or inefficiencies.
Over time, he thinks the use of Six Sigma could reduce county expenses, across the board, by as much as 30 percent.
"I don't know of any other municipal government that has embraced the concepts of Six Sigma. If the signage says, 'Welcome to Erie County/Buffalo: The First Six Sigma Community in the United States,' that will resonate with the business community."
"It's discipline. It means saying 'no' even to your friends. It means standing up to even those people who helped you get there."
Keane's money-saving plan hinges on two reforms: performance-based budgeting and a new computerized accountability system to track the efficiency and quality of individual county services. When asked for specifics on where the savings may come from, he said, "I think it will be across the board."
Keane thinks some of the greatest savings will come from the re-establishment of a Medicaid Fraud Unit within the Social Services Department, as well as changes to how the county handles Medicaid recipients.
>Question 18: What will be your strategy on taxes? Will you lower, raise or hold the line on property taxes and will you lower, raise or hold the line on sales taxes?
"I'm not going to raise taxes, and eventually I want to cut them."
Keane often talks about the fiscal surprises that await the next county executive, and concedes the sales and property tax rates may have to remain as is for the next few years.
"I'm not going to promise that we'll cut taxes immediately. I do think we can live within our means and eventually cut taxes."
Keane's preference is to focus first on cutting the 8.75 percent sales tax.
"The sales tax would be the first one I would reduce, but we're stuck with it for now."
Collins said the county's financial demands, especially its infrastructure needs, will make it almost impossible for him to cut taxes in the short term.
Over time, he expects to cut the cost of government and grow the tax base enough that Erie County will be able to afford a sales tax cut.
"You can't shrink to success. My mantra in business is grow or die."
>Question 19: Giambra has been an outspoken opponent of a Seneca Nation casino downtown. Do you support or oppose the casino?
"It's already here so we should build the most grandiose casino possible."
Collins often prefaces his support for the casino with a caveat that because it's already been approved, the community should embrace it, a hint that maybe he wasn't always a big casino backer. He said now that it's a done deal, it's time to exploit the casino.
"We have a casino but it's nothing but a small warehouse. I support the Senecas' $330 million investment in downtown."
"We're already paying the price. Shouldn't we get some of the benefits, namely jobs?"
Keane said he would have preferred the state legalize casino gambling, a way of generating sales and property taxes, but the alternative, a Seneca-run casino, is a positive step.
"It's not the answer for downtown Buffalo but it's part of the answer. We have to stop saying 'no' to development."
Keane said he welcomes the $333 million hotel and casino complex the Senecas hope to build downtown.
>Question 20: If elected, do you intend to seek a second term? Why or why not?
"I'm capable of it," said the 61-year old Democrat. "I'm up to it."
Keane called it presumptuous for any candidate who hasn't been elected to one four-year term to speculate on whether he might serve a second term.
"I've certainly got the the energy," said the 57-year-old Republican. "Yes, I'm willing to put myself forth for eight years."
Collins said he's confident that, if elected, he can accomplish enough in his first term to warrant a second in the eyes of voters.