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Collins shows tin ear in his call for raises

When Chris Collins promised to run Erie County like a business, who knew the model would be AIG?

The county executive, predictably, rejects any comparison to the insurance giant that became a four-letter word after spending lavishly on perks while sticking taxpayers with a huge bailout bill.

But you have to wonder if he's just as out of touch with the sensibilities of everyday people after proposing hefty raises for some top officials while handing a property tax hike to residents already reeling from the economic meltdown.

Collins' first budget proposal would raise the county property tax haul by about 8 percent, or nearly $16 million. The average tax rate would climb by 3.6 percent, while fees would go up by about $600,000.

And what would taxpayers get for that extra money?

Fewer workers to perform essential services. Less support for cultural organizations. And less support for city parks that are regional assets.

As he put it when unveiling the plan, "Everyone has pain in this budget."

Well, not quite everyone.

Collins would have us believe that some of his aides are doing such a bang-up job that we just can't afford to lose them -- even if it means handing out big raises as the economy crumbles around us.

His social services commissioner would see a whopping 18 percent pay hike, taking his salary to $140,190. His budget director would get a 9 percent raise, boosting his salary to $129,500. The health commissioner and deputy county executive would get what he calls "step increases" -- otherwise known as pay hikes -- of more than 6 percent, taking their salaries to $163,234 and $114,443, respectively.

Collins says it's appropriate, even when cutting services and raising taxes, to "single out a couple of top performers" who've trimmed their departments, saved money and who -- like Social Services Commissioner Michael Weiner -- could get jobs elsewhere.

"If he leaves, it's going to cost us millions of dollars," Collins said, insisting that no one else could save that kind of money. "Can you find someone else to fill Trent Edwards' shoes?" Collins asked. "A superstar is a superstar."

Somehow, though, I suspect residents don't feel the same excitement about their county tax bills as they do about the 5-1 Buffalo Bills and their quarterback. As I recall, AIG officials also said they were just rewarding top performers, and that argument didn't go over too well.

Collins insists "there's zero comparison between Wall Street and Erie County," adding that his officials don't get those kind of perks.

That may be true. But what is comparable is the tin ear he shares with his business world buddies.

When people are hurting as much as residents are from the combined blows of Wall Street and now this budget proposal, it's not the time to wave exorbitant pay hikes in their faces.

He fails to grasp that there's a fundamental difference between government service and the private sector, and that not every business practice translates well. A company can give raises whenever it likes and hike prices to pay for it, then let consumers make their choice.

Taxpayers have no choice.

I can understand Collins -- who donates his own salary to charity -- wanting to reward good public servants who may not get raises every year. But not in this amount, at this time.

Turning the typical belt-tightening cliche on its ear, his budget would have Erie County do less with more.

Maybe that can't be avoided. But what can be avoided is adding insult to taxpayers' injury.

e-mail: rwatson@buffnews.com

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