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Hartman projected as reform facilitator Giambra wants him for cost-cutting agenda

Interim Erie County Comptroller James M. Hartman will take a job with the Giambra administration in January, if the County Legislature concurs.

Hartman would be County Executive Joel A. Giambra's "director of management initiatives" earning about $95,000 a year. He will be expected to save the government money along the lines suggested by Giambra and by consultants to the state-appointed Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority.

"I've chosen Jim because he's a consummate professional," Giambra said Monday, emphasizing that Hartman has the needed relationship with the County Legislature to turn many ideas into reality.

Among the more than 100 suggestions: charging towns for Sheriff's Department road patrols starting in 2007, stressing home confinement over jail to ease crowding at county lockups, bringing county fees into line with what other counties collect, and selling advertising on county-owned surfaces.

"It is a very ambitious reform agenda," Hartman said, "probably one of the most ambitious ever undertaken by a county government in New York. I will do my best to make it happen."

In past months, Hartman has panned some suggestions from the authority's consultant, the PFM Group, saying they are unlikely to save money in the near term. Testifying before a County Legislature committee, he said that some of PFM's later initiatives did not pass "the smell test."

His stance, however, was not unlike that of Giambra, who also said that some of PFM's suggested reforms are not likely to win the state support they need or to save money as rapidly as envisioned. Still, Giambra and the Legislature are committed to many ideas contained in two four-year forecasts because they need the savings to avoid more tax increases in this decade.

"I really kicked the tires pretty hard before I decided whether I could drive this thing," said Hartman, 53. "Most of what PFM has in here are good and workable ideas or I wouldn't be taking this on. Some of them I did raise questions about.

"I think what will happen over the next two or three years is that some of the ideas will not be able to come to fruition, but some new ones will materialize," he said.

Hartman at times was the county's most pointed critic of PFM and the state control board's chairman, Edward V. Regan, for suggesting one-shot revenues as a way to balance the budget and for complaining that county lawmakers are not focused on long-term reforms. So the choice of Hartman as the reform czar might not thrill Regan, who could not be reached to comment Monday.

Giambra will put the job and Hartman's name before the Legislature for its meeting at 2 p.m. Friday. If lawmakers do not act, the job will be taken up by the new Legislature in January.

The county executive will tell lawmakers that the director of management initiatives will report directly to him and give monthly progress reports to the Legislature and the control board. The director also will seek the $10 million a year in efficiency grants that the state offered when it created the authority this year.

Giambra's choice of Hartman shows how well the two have worked together since the summer, when the Democratic-controlled Legislature chose Hartman to succeed Nancy A. Naples. Naples and Giambra had feuded openly, and she blamed the 2005 budget debacle largely on his financial policies.

When it was disclosed that Naples paid her property taxes late in five of the last seven years, and had steered the bulk of the county's bond business to a politically connected underwriter, Naples said she would not seek re-election and then resigned to emphasize the need for a control board, she said. The seven control board members began work in August.

Years earlier, Hartman had predicted that the property tax cuts championed by Giambra and the Legislature at the start of the decade would lead to a huge deficit without spending cuts. The Legislature hired him for advice as it began work on the difficult budget of 2005. Lawmakers in June named him comptroller, a job that pays $80,613 a year.

Hartman at the time vowed not to be a media hound.

"It's not going to be my approach to take a position in the press," he said in late June. "I'll go to the nth degree to make my positions in private. The approach at this point is to sort of lower the decibel level and tone, focus on the problem and get it done."

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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