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County officials, already furious at recent raises and bonuses granted to top officials of the Erie County Medical Center, faced a new aggravation Wednesday.

Paul Candino, medical center chief executive officer, confirmed that the hospital is paying $7,500-a-semester tuition for him to work towards a master's degree in business administration.

County Executive Gorski, who criticized the bonuses as illegal and unjustified, said the free tuition for Candino is an added insult to taxpayers.

"I see no reason why people making $200,000 should have their tuition paid for by the county," said Gorski, who suggested that Candino might consider moving on. Gorski has instructed the county personnel manager not to honor the bonuses.

In a letter to David Rutecki, chairman of the medical center's board of managers, Gorski said he feels Candino has done a good job but wants too much pay and benefits for doing it.

"If he -- or any other members of the management team -- all of whom are making six-figure plus salaries, feel they are underpaid or unable to pay for tuition or any other outside costs, I would urge them to see if they can find comparable employment somewhere else," Gorski said.

Gorski's letter followed disclosure that the hospital is funding Candino's tuition for a master's program at the University at Buffalo School of Management.

Rutecki has scheduled a board of managers meeting for this afternoon to review Gorski's sharp objections to the panel's Sept. 10 approval of raises and merit bonuses for Candino and four other medical center officials.

The board of managers voted 7 to 3 for the raises and bonuses. Candino received a $7,530-a-year raise to $211,030, retroactive to Jan. 1, 1997, plus a bonus of $24,872. There was no public mention of the additional $15,000 in tuition.

One of the seven votes -- the minimum for board approval -- was cast by Joel Maten, who now lives in Texas. Candino said Wednesday that the vote is valid because Maten is an appointee of the Legislature's GOP majority and the Republicans have not yet named a successor.

"I know he moved this year sometime," said Candino. "He is a board member until he is replaced by an appointee authorized by the Republican leadership in the Legislature."

Gorski wrote Rutecki, "When the hospital is asking for an increased subsidy from the county, and the nurses are currently working without a contract, you can see how terribly inappropriate these actions by the board are."

Michael Bogulski, president of Local 815, Civil Services Employees Association, said Candino's recent rewards are unconscionable.

"I hope the board reverses the bonuses and raises," Bogulski said Wednesday. "It aggravates me to have Dave Rutecki claim that Candino's raises have been in line with those received by rank and file workers.

Candino's salary has risen from $165,000 per year to $211,000 since 1993. That is almost 6 percent a year. Rank and file workers have averaged 3 percent increases.

Rutecki said that the board planned to review Gorski's complaint about the bonuses but might not act.

Candino spoke to him about the tuition, Rutecki said, and he discussed it with some board members, but no action was needed.

"That is part of day-to-day operations that are part of continuing education. It did not require any board action," Rutecki said.

County Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick, D-Kenmore, said Wednesday that county lawmakers want Candino to stay on the job, but to quit his graduate studies.

"It needs all of his time every day," said Swanick of Candino's medical center job. Swanick, a legislator for 19 years, said the hospital is struggling financially more now than at any time in his memory.

County Budget Director Kenneth C. Kruly said Candino's newly revealed "perk" is far removed from the ordinary course of county business and that county hospital administrators are supposed to already possess top executive skills.

"Providing a major educational benefit for a CEO of a public hospital is highly unusual," said Kruly.

Candino, CEO since 1993, said that he is in the first semester of the master's degree program.

"Classes are generally one day a week," he said. "It requires somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 20 hours a week outside class. Classes are Friday one week, Saturday the following week."

Nobody else in the county is getting anything like this, Kruly said.

A program to help county workers upgrade their skills requires them to enroll on their own time in classes at Buffalo State College or Erie Community College, where tuition is much lower than $15,000 a year, Kruly said.

He said the literature for the UB program describes it as designed for employees who have "high potential for administrative positions."

"I would like to think our hospital CEO is already at that level," said Kruly.

"I assume tuition was provided for others, but that would be his decision for any one other than him," said Rutecki.

If Candino were to leave, Gorski's former top assistant would be next in line for that post.

Former Budget Director Sheila B. Kee became ECMC chief operating officer 17 months ago. The board of managers voted her a raise but, because she hadn't yet worked a full year at ECMC it did not give her a bonus.

Candino's contract has a severance package that includes a year's pay if terminated without cause. If he left of his own accord, there would be no severance.

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