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BUSINESS ACUMEN AT ISSUE IN MARINELLI-VASTOLA CONTEST

For years, the 11th District of the County Legislature proved one of those "safe districts" -- a place former Democratic Legislator Leonard R. Lenihan called his own for 16 years.

Now successor Lynn M. Marinelli is looking to create a safe district of her own in the Town of Tonawanda. Following impressive primary and general election victories in last year's special elections, she aims to win her first full term by overcoming a stiff challenge from Republican Cindy Vastola, a businesswoman with a history of attracting votes.

"I will sit in that seat and just say no to new tax increases," Ms. Vastola said, reciting what has become the mantra of her campaign.

Ms. Vastola, 43, is no stranger to the Town of Tonawanda-based district. She ran for the seat against Lenihan in 1995, garnering a strong 42 percent of the vote. Involved in her family's heating and air-conditioning business until its sale earlier this year, she has sat on 13 community agency boards ranging from United Cerebral Palsy to Junior Achievement.

While she calls both Lenihan and Ms. Marinelli "wonderful people," though she is working hard to contrast her own private sector experience.

"When you come right down to it, both have always been employed by government," she said. "Unless you've tried to meet a payroll, you don't know what it's like. That's the big difference. I've been out there."

But Democrats question her business acumen. While Ms. Marinelli has not raised questions surrounding the recent sale of Vastola Heating and Air Conditioning, county Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon has. He maintains that the company's creditors will lose major dollars as a result of the sale of some of the company's assets.

"It means she's got $150,000 for the business and owes $750,000," Pigeon said. "She's stiffing the creditors. And it's an issue if she says she can run the county like a business."

Ms. Vastola explained that she sold the Vastola name and some assets to another company. The assets were liquidated to pay creditors, she said, adding she does not know what further sales of assets will bring to pay remaining bills.

"I don't know how everything will be sold," she said, explaining why a bulk sale notification was placed in legal ads. She also said all employees and taxes were paid as part of the company's liquidation.

Still, she pledges to use business principles if elected, and continues concentrating on taxes as her main issue.

When County Executive Gorski issued his pledge a few weeks ago not to hike taxes over the next three years, Ms. Vastola's voice of criticism was heard above the chorus of praise for the action. She questioned why Gorski couldn't promise a cut in taxes rather than just a freeze.

"A tax freeze is a tax increase -- it means they won't be lowered," she said at the time. "I know there's money in that budget with all the phantom jobs, and if we get rid of those kinds of things, I know we can lower taxes."

That's why, while she supports county spending to retain the Buffalo Bills under a new lease agreement, she discounts the notion of a sin tax. The money is there, she maintains, to fund a new lease agreement.

While Ms. Vastola is considered a tough opponent, just about all political observers agree she is taking on the county's most formidable rookie. Ms. Marinelli, 35, a veteran of the staffs of the late Assemblyman William B. Hoyt as well as Gorski, scored major victories last year in the special election called to fill Lenihan's seat.

Most credit her success with her penchant for knocking on lots of 11th District doors -- about 20,000 in the last year.

"I love the job, and I love going door-to-door," Ms. Marinelli said, adding that the experience has taught her a lot about what people are thinking.

"People are feeling the strains and are sending some clear messages," she said, about taxes, accountability and responsibility of elected officials.

With a year of experience behind her, Ms. Marinelli is conveying some accomplishments to the voters as well. She was instrumental in the county takeover of Kenmore Avenue and the resulting reconstruction project. That is the kind of immediate consolidation efforts that will benefit county residents, she says.

She was also active in scheduling work in Ellicott Creek near Ellicott Creek Park, already resulting in algae control and dredging for boater use. All of that activity is to encourage more recreational and family use of the county park.

Ms. Marinelli says she knows what the aging population of her district encounters with taxes.

"I'm a single mom who pays taxes and chooses to send her daughter to a parochial school," she said. "I know what it's like to pinch pennies."

That's why she supports the Gorski tax freeze, and will "look at" cutting taxes. She also promises to work on county programs against domestic violence.

Both candidates are now planning full efforts in the final weeks of the campaign, with Ms. Vastola scheduling some radio advertising and Ms. Marinelli continuing her literature drops and mailings. Neither candidate has made major expenditures as the campaign picks up, with Ms. Vastola spending about $3,000 in the last few months and Ms. Marinelli about $7,000.

And neither candidate can count on a party loyalties carrying the day, since the latest apportionment figures show Democrats and Republicans virtually even in enrollment.

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