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Collins spends $5,020 on suit dropped by Democrats

It was one of those so-sue-me lawsuits.

County Executive Chris Collins last year was not releasing an extra $208,000 that the Legislature had appropriated for Erie Community College.

Tired of being ignored by the county executive, some Legislature Democrats sued him, using a lawyer who volunteered his time.

Collins soon threw in the towel. He rendered the Democrats' lawsuit moot by releasing the money for ECC even before the first court arguments -- but not before hiring an outside law firm for help. The $5,020 check to Magavern, Magavern and Grimm went out last month.

Was it a waste of taxpayer money?

County executives are expected to follow legally adopted budgets. But Collins has little patience for the Legislature. He has been known to balk at the Legislature's budget decisions.

His aides argued that the Legislature based its extra spending on "phantom dollars" and that Collins didn't think his government had the money.

County government, however, is a more than $1 billion entity, and when the books close on last year, Collins will record a more than $15 million surplus, according to his budget officials.

"When sued, you defend yourself," Grant Loomis, a Collins' spokesman, said of the Democrats' lawsuit.

He said outside lawyers are often hired when the county's elected leaders face off in court because the County Attorney's Office represents nearly all of county government and has a conflict in representing one branch against another.

Loomis said that though Collins had agreed to disburse the extra $208,000, his lawyers still drafted court papers because the Democrats did not immediately drop their case. The law firm was paid to prepare those briefs.

"I still maintain that, had we not pursued the lawsuit, I don't believe he would have paid the $208,000," said Legislature Majority Leader Maria R. Whyte of Buffalo, one of the Democrats who filed the lawsuit using Whyte's husband, attorney Charles H. Cobb.

"It was a needless waste of $5,000 because, clearly, the county executive ultimately did pay the college," she said. "The county executive's philosophy is, 'It's my way or the highway. And if you don't like it, I dare you to sue me.' "

Loomis, though, said Collins freed the $208,000 not because of the lawsuit but because more federal stimulus money had arrived and the county executive was convinced the government could afford the additional spending.

Collins has surrendered taxpayer dollars on other legal fronts he created. When his aides blocked the New York Civil Liberties Union's request for jail-related records, the organization's lawyers took them to court, winning the right to collect the documents at the heart of its Freedom of Information Law request.

The case cost county taxpayers $18,400 for the outside law firm hired to represent the Collins team. But the expense didn't stop there. A judge ruled that the county's underlying arguments were so flimsy the government should pay the Civil Liberties Union's legal fees. They totaled $9,123.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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