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Collins' aides put on county payroll

When they began the transition of Erie County government 17 days ago, Chris Collins turned to the lame duck Joel A. Giambra and asked, how can we get these guys paid?

Collins was talking about a couple of his campaign aides who would be swimming in work during the run-up to Jan. 1, when he takes the county's reins. The aides had been paid from campaign funds. Now Collins wanted them collecting government salaries.

Campaign aides in New York state often land on the government payroll -- but after their victorious candidate takes the oath. With Giambra's blessing, Collins planted one aide, who happens to be a lawyer, as an assistant county attorney though he will do no Law Department work.

Another aide will move into a Budget Department post, though he will do no budgeting work. A job for a third transition aide is being arranged.

The state-appointed control board, which has said it looks forward to the "energy and focus a new administration brings," approved the hires knowing they were for the transition staff. They seemed "reasonable and necessary" so the government "maintains the services that it has to maintain," a control board official said.

"The bureaucracy, in theory, could do it by themselves, but they are looking for direction," said control board Executive Director Kenneth Vetter, who reviewed the jobs with board Chairman Anthony J. Baynes. "That was the rationale with which the authority approved the positions."

But if government should run more like a business, as Collins has said, wouldn't a business ask existing employees -- perhaps the appointees serving an executive going out the door -- to provide the labor that smoothes the new leader's path?

"To my knowledge, there has never been an individual put on the county payroll prior to the new county executive coming in," said County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz. "I'm not saying it's wrong. But it would be wrong to put them into a position just to give them a salary when they are not doing the work that the position entails.

"We shouldn't be slotting people into positions just because they are open," he added. "We should be putting people into job positions where the work is needed."

Collins, in a written statement, did not dispute that his aides were doing work unrelated to their job descriptions. But they are doing government business in helping pave the way for his new administration, he said.

"They are performing official county business and should be compensated as Erie County employees," Collins said. He argued that some states cover transition expenses, as does the federal government when the White House changes hands.

The interim salaries are not large, as county government salaries go. The highest amounts to about $1,000 a week for Christopher Grant, the campaign manager who after Jan. 1 probably will occupy a top-floor post. During the transition he is classified as an assistant county attorney at a salary of $51,232 a year.

While Collins' transition arrangement appears unusual in New York, he is unusual in that he has not come from another elected post. He had no public staff to lean on.

Giambra, by comparison, arrived as county executive after serving as Buffalo comptroller and had city-paid appointees helping his takeover.

Dennis T. Gorski was an assemblyman when elected county executive. Byron W. Brown had the trappings of a state senator as he took over as Buffalo mayor.

Collins' aides are managing his schedule now that dozens of groups around the county want to meet him, and the aides are arranging about 160 volunteers into some 30 subcommittees to study county operations, said his spokesman Grant Loomis. Loomis, during the transition, is earning about $600 a week from money set aside for a Budget Department employee.

On the campaign trail, Collins rejected politics as usual. For the transition, he enlisted familiar faces from the world of government and politics: lobbyist and former State Attorney General Dennis Vacco is a volunteer; so are former County Comptroller Nancy A. Naples and former Giambra assistants Marina Woolcock and Carl Calabrese, who are now lobbyists.

That lineup might bode well for Collins, said Kevin Hardwick, a Canisius College political science professor who agreed it's unusual for a county executive-elect to shift his aides onto the government payroll before taking office.

"You can run government more like a business. But you can't run government totally like a business," Hardwick said.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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