It may or may not be legal, but you can say this much about the Erie County Legislature's decision to award a $700,000 contract to a high-dollar contributor of the outgoing county executive: It stinks out loud.
By a largely party-line vote, Democrats on the Legislature gave the money to Williamsville developer Michael L. Joseph to pay for infrastructure at a senior housing project he wants to build in Lackawanna. The freebie would pay for water and sewer lines as well as an access road and parking lot, said Richard Tobe, commissioner of environment and planning for County Executive Dennis Gorski, who will leave office next month.
Tobe says the deal is perfectly legal and points to other programs in which the county has provided financial assistance to such companies as American Axle & Manufacturing, Ingram Micro and Trico Products Corp. What is different with this program is that it benefits a housing developer, he said.
Frederick J. Marshall, the County Legislature's minority leader, begs to differ. It is not just the law, but the state constitution that is offended by this transaction. He cited Article 8, section 1 which reads, in part, that "No county, city, town, village or school district shall give or loan any money or property to or in aid of any individual, or private corporation or association, or private undertaking . . ."
That argument may ultimately be for the lawyers to sort out, but what is perfectly clear is the appearance of conflict. Joseph and the companies he controls gave $23,500 to Gorski between 1995 and this summer. Only one other person has given more generously to the executive. Now, in the final legislative session of the year, only 16 days before the defeated Gorski leaves office, the great benefactor is given a gift of nearly three-quarters of a million dollars of public money.
Tobe insists the issue is one of worth. Joseph's project will benefit the elderly (though not the low-income elderly) and it will help the county as a whole, he said. Nor will Joseph make a lot of money on the housing project, he said.
That may all be true, but if it is, it would still be true next month, when Republican Joel Giambra takes over as county executive. Conflict would have been avoided if the county simply delayed action for a few weeks.
Of course, the deal might not have flown under Giambra, and taxpayers will be forgiven if, in their wretched cynicism, they suspect that fact may have more to do with the action than the sudden importance of providing housing to middle-income seniors.
Gorski has done well for Erie County over the past 12 years, so maybe residents will forgive him for raiding their wallets to help underwrite a private project that produces no long-term employment or adds significantly to the tax base. Maybe they won't hold it against him that this looks for all the world like a political payback. But it still stinks.