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Collins, Legislature in a war of words Executive's budget faces a rough ride

It was bound to happen: Business dynamo Chris Collins clashes time and again with the elected legislators who are in his way as Erie County executive.

"Obstructionists," he called the Legislature's Democratic majority on Wednesday as he fumed about the latest conflict, over the county's dwindling fuel supply.

Legislators say the problem lies with Collins' business-world view of government.

"He has sheltered himself in an ivory tower," said Thomas J. Mazur of Cheektowaga, a Democrat who had been friendly with him. "He never gets on the phone and communicates."

As a newcomer, Collins had a pretty good start. He had a friendly Democratic chairwoman in Lynn M. Marinelli and an approachable coalition of Democrats and Republicans who selected her. They gave him all of the pay raises he sought for his appointees.

The goodwill is gone at a critical time. Collins on Monday presents his 2009 budget to the Legislature, and it's likely to contain unpopular cuts and a property tax increase -- even though Collins predicted a tax hike could be avoided next year.

Collins will need votes from Legislature Democrats to raise taxes, which gives them more reason to question his priorities and delete his preferences. Will they cut spending for road projects in Republican districts, especially if Republican legislators balk at a tax hike?

Collins says he's cutting more than 100 jobs, including those of his own appointees. But will the Legislature pick off more of his appointees if he won't bargain on other needs?

"You don't know what a guy is all about until you see his budget, and this is his first one," said Legislator Thomas A. Loughran, D-Amherst. "Did he make all the cuts that he could have? A property tax increase has to be an absolute last resort."

Other county executives have butted heads with legislators. Dennis Gorski would win votes by dispensing a patronage job or pieces of pork. Joel A. Giambra had some legendary spats. In a parking garage, he called Amherst's Barry Weinstein a weasel.

Several events have soured the Collins-Legislature chemistry:

*Most Legislature Democrats tried to settle a three-year-old impasse with the county's blue-collar union by granting each worker a one-time $600 payment. Collins lit them up, calling them irresponsible and biased against women because they hadn't raised the starting salary of his county attorney, who is a woman. The county attorney eventually got her raise. And the state-appointed control board eventually ditched the $600 payments.

*Lawmakers knew Collins wanted to overturn the Democratic-sponsored law requiring contractors on big county jobs to offer apprentice programs. But it was the way he did it -- offering up a set of administrative rules that described how he would follow the law as the Legislature began its summer recess. The "rules," however, were designed to neuter the law, and became effective when no lawmaker noticed them after 60 days.

*Collins' top county attorney, Cheryl A. Green, recently determined the government wasn't shredding documents swiftly enough. The county still archives records that state guidelines say can be destroyed. When lawmakers tried to protect records that help parents of lead-poisoned children sue landlords, Green declared lawmakers out of line, and said she and Collins wouldn't follow their decision.

There have been other scrapes. The latest arose Tuesday when Democrats on the Government Affairs Committee refused to move on some of Collins requests. Most importantly, the Democrats didn't approve the $600,000 budget transfer that would keep county vehicles fueled for the rest of the year. Democrats wanted to know more about where the money was coming from.

It was one of those tempests that arise when lawmakers remind executives of the checks and balances written into the County Charter. Either way, the Democrats expected they would act on the matter next week. Still, Collins was annoyed and said the money should have been transferred a week earlier.

"It is unfathomable for me to understand how the Legislature majority can put politics before the people's best interests on an issue like this," he complained at a news conference called to pressure the Democrats. "It is frustrating to see the Legislature majority stepping in as obstructionists to our collective mission of serving the people of Erie County."

Marinelli is in the middle of the Collins-Legislature dynamic. Collins helped deliver the Republican votes that made her chairwoman, which tarnished her in the eyes of Democratic purists. But if she can hold the coalition together, it helps her, and him.

Nonetheless, there is no better example of their discord than the statement his staff issued in September, when she called for a government hiring freeze:

"Once again, Chairwoman Marinelli is a day late and a dollar short. More than two months ago, County Executive Collins implemented a hiring freeze . . . Of course, it may have been overlooked by Chairwoman Marinelli this summer as she hastily lobbied for and supported $1.4 million in irresponsible spending for the [blue-collar] payout and needless increased aid to Erie Community College."

At his news conference, Collins said he maintains a line of communication with Marinelli.

But in a Buffalo News interview Marinelli said she respects the office of other elected officials without regard to personalities or disagreements, and she expects the same in return.

Does Collins respect her office? she was asked.

"I think there's a learning curve here," she said.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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