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A long tradition of being at odds Squabbling between the county executive and comptroller is not new or unusual

In the 1980s, Erie County Comptroller Alfreda Slominski accused the county executive, Edward J. Rutkowski, of "a pattern of harassment."

Just a few years ago, Joel Giambra and then-Comptroller Nancy Naples butted heads all the time.

Ah, the good old days.

Now County Executive Chris Collins and Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz are taking their turns as Road Runner and Coyote.

Take Wednesday's events. Poloncarz called a news conference to announce that his staff fully reviewed Collins' first budget proposal and that it has problems.

Poloncarz said Collins underestimated some major costs and that some revenues would fall short -- especially state aid, considering the gong of doom sounding in Albany.

Poloncarz also said that, in a "serious breach," Collins did not disclose that the county owes Erie County Medical Center $16 million. So the
Collins budget, now before the Legislature, does not balance, he said.

How did Collins respond?

"Chicken Little," he called the comptroller.

"I understand debits and credits," Collins said. "It would appear the comptroller doesn't."

By the time Collins finished his rebuttal news conference, he said Poloncarz could not be trusted, had worsened matters with ECMC and might not know how to examine a budget.

But Poloncarz had said Collins is flouting generally accepted accounting principles to make reserves appear fatter than they are. And he is trying to freeze him out, the government's chief financial officer.

In Erie County, squabbles between county executives and comptrollers are as certain as hot sauce on wings. Giambra has seen it from both sides. He was a comptroller for the City of Buffalo before he was Erie County executive.

"As a comptroller, you have an important role, but you are in the enviable position of being a Monday-morning quarterback without the legal requirements of having to fix the problem," Giambra said Wednesday. "But as the county executive, the buck stops at your desk."

Collins would agree with much of that. He said fixing the many budget issues Poloncarz raised Wednesday would trigger a 20 percent property tax increase, not the 3.6 percent hike Collins deems necessary and must justify to the taxpayers.

"They criticize, criticize, criticize," he said of Poloncarz and the state-appointed control board, "and stop short of being forthright and honest in saying we should therefore have a higher property tax increase."

Politics colors the dynamics, of course. Team Collins expects Poloncarz to be its Democratic opponent in the next county executive race in 2011. Meanwhile, Poloncarz has an ideal perch from which he can point out the Republican's missteps or embarrass him with audits.

Collins has kept Poloncarz out of some loops. When Collins on Oct. 10 publicly dribbled out a few details of his budget, two Poloncarz deputies tried to sit in on the news conference but were turned away.

Collins scored a major blow in May when he hired away one of Poloncarz's top officials, Gregory G. Gach, and made him his budget director. Poloncarz was blindsided and fumed for days.

Poloncarz, meanwhile, refuses Collins' requests to advance cash for some major public improvements, such as the reconstruction of Tonawanda Creek Road in Clarence. Visible progress there helps Republican County Legislator Michael H. Ranzenhofer in his race for the State Senate.

Collins knows it. So does Poloncarz, who says the government does not now have the money to pay the contractor but will when it can return to Wall Street for a loan.

More recently, Collins hid from Poloncarz the fact the county owes ECMC $16 million in Medicaid-related charges and that he's bargaining with the hospital to forgive the payment because the county provides it with other support.

"The comptroller cannot be trusted to maintain any confidence," Collins explained.

Countered Poloncarz: "As the chief financial officer, our office has to be involved, whether he likes it or not."

By design, the comptroller provides an independently elected set of eyes over the county's books. But the county executive and comptroller also are to work in tandem.

The comptroller pays the bills on expenses the county executive's agencies and other departments incur. The county executive and the Legislature decide which major projects are worthy of long-term debt, and the comptroller arranges the loan, or did in the pre-control-board days. Both the county executive and comptroller have hands in completing year-end financial reports.

When the Republican Slominski did not submit to the Republican heavyweights who wanted her to treat Rutkowski better, a reform measure was floated to break the office apart. It didn't fly.

"You wouldn't believe what went on in those days," she said Wednesday.

Slominski said that by reviewing the Collins budget, Poloncarz was doing his job.

She endorsed Collins for election last year, believing that the government should be run with a business approach.

"So far I'm very satisfied," she said of the county executive.

She said Collins called her last week, just to see how she was doing.

"I told him the fact that everybody's mad at him means he's doing something right."

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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