The race for the 8th district seat in the Erie County Legislature between two-term incumbent Legislator Ted Morton, a Republican, and John Bruso, a Democratic newcomer, could play a pivotal role in determining which party controls the 11-seat body.
Bruso, 58, is a retired UPS worker who started his career as a driver and worked his way up to a supervisory position in the company's human resources department. He said his career with the United Parcel Service taught him "a lot about numbers and efficiency."
Morton, 58, is a self-employed financial planner. He pointed to two initiatives – his Made in America Act and the remediation of Como Park Lake – as significant developments during his two terms representing the district.
Republicans currently hold a 6-5 majority in the Legislature.
The county's 8th district includes the towns of Alden, Cheektowaga and Lancaster, and the villages of Lancaster and Depew. Located in the heart of the district is Como Lake Park, a 534-acre county park with a lake that has not been properly maintained, said Morton, who has pushed for the lake to be dredged.
"It's something that's really disgusting," Morton recently told The Buffalo News editorial board. "The last time dredging was done was 14 years ago at a cost of $300,000."
A number of steps must take place before the dredging can begin, said Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz. The county is currently funding a $150,000 project to repair the dam, with work expected to be complete early in 2018, said Poloncarz. Ground and sediment testing can then begin, with the entire process taking up to two years at a cost of up to $2 million.
Morton used the county's Shared Services Panel to hammer out a tentative agreement with the Village and Town of Lancaster and the Village of Depew to use their workers and equipment to dredge the lake, a move that could save the county up to $600,000.
Bruso, who resides in Lancaster, has visited the park regularly with his wife and two children. He agreed the park lake needs attention, but questioned the cost.
"Everybody would like to see the lake as beautiful and as pristine as it once was, but somebody has to pay for it," Bruso said. "If the cost is prohibitive, I don't think it can happen next year."
The Made in America act sponsored by Morton this summer was passed convincingly by a 9-1 vote, but seven weeks later it failed when a Poloncarz veto withstood an attempted override. The proposed law would amend the Erie County Charter to require that goods purchased by the county that cost more than $10,000 be manufactured in the U.S. and all contracts for services for more than $10,000 are made with entities in the U.S. Morton said he has not given up on the issue and continues to pursue a compromise.
A high priority for Morton is to restructure salaries for caseworkers in the Child Protective Services Division, where salaries start at $32,600. The suggested hike of $5,000 to $6,000 could be made up by reducing the turnover rate – the average tenure is three years --- which would allow for fewer trainers.
"These people are grotesquely underpaid for the job they are doing, and the response of the administration is it's a union/contractual issue," Morton said.
A political novice, Bruso faults the legislative process because of the reluctance of legislators to cross party lines, but he commended the bipartisan effort behind the county's war on opioid addiction. Still, he said, more must be done to solve that problem.
The county's Opiate Epidemic Task Force lacks a strong leader, said Bruso. The county contracted with Crisis Services to establish a 24-hour addiction hotline, 831-7007. Launched in August 2016, the hotline is flawed, Bruso said.
"The end of rehab brings a gap in treatment and that's when people fall back into drugs," said Bruso. "The hotline could help prevent relapse, but it's not an easy number to remember."
"The reason I'm getting into politics is I want to fight the opioid epidemic from the inside out," Bruso said.
Bruso served as president of the board of directors with Kids Escaping Drugs, a group dedicated to combating teen addiction through treatment and education. He currently is executive director of Families Touched by MS, a Depew-based non-profit group that raises funds to help families offset the costs of handicapped accessible renovations.
Morton's background is not without controversy.
The Erie County Board of Ethics fined Morton $500 in February 2016, a decision it reaffirmed after he appealed. The fine was imposed after Morton was accused of filing false information on his 2013 financial disclosure form. The county said he understated his personal debts by tens of thousands of dollars. Morton has since filed a lawsuit against the county in connection with the fine, which remains unpaid.
In August 2013, the Financial Industry Regulatory Agency fined Morton $5,000 and suspended him from working as a financial planner for six months. At the time, Morton acknowledged borrowing about $315,000 from seven of his clients between 2009 and 2012. Morton was subsequently fired by LPL Financial.
"I borrowed money from family members and close friends," Morton said. "Should I have informed my company? Absolutely. It was a mistake that I made. I paid everyone back -- with interest."
Morton maintained that his ability to serve the public was not compromised by either incident.
Morton was defeated by Democrat Mary Holtz in the 2011 race for Cheektowaga town supervisor and had an unsuccessful run in 2009 for the old 8th District Legislature seat against Democratic incumbent Thomas J. Mazur. He also failed in a 1996 bid for the New York State Assembly seat that was held by Democrat Paul A. Tokasz.
Morton, a graduate of the University at Buffalo School of Management with a degree in finance, has been a 35-year resident of the Town of Cheektowaga.