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Don't hide the debt Omission of $16 million obligation raises questions about county budget

By purposely omitting a $16 million liability from his proposed budget and still presenting the document as balanced, Erie County executive Chris collins has demonstrated a troubling disregard for ethical budgeting practices as well as the public trust.

Indeed, by deliberately misleading legislators, the control board and the public on a matter of finance, Collins has undermined his own assertive style. Collins is supposed to run the county like a business, but omitting expenses from a critical legal document doesn't meet that test. As an unpolitician, he is supposed to be immune from pressures that can cause traditional officeholders to play fast and loose with taxpayers. Yet that is what he has done.

Since September, the county has known that it owes $16 million more than it expected in Medicaid-related payments to Erie County Medical Center and its Erie County Home. Yet the budget that Collins unveiled this month hides that debt, which -- according to Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz -- threatens to unbalance next year's budget as well as the four-year plan required by the county control board. Collins' hope of persuading the control board to relax into an advisory status starts with the board's acceptance of the four-year plan. His failure to report honestly the $16 million obligation undercuts any confidence the county should be released from the financial supervision of the control board.

Collins' position is that omitting the liability isn't a problem because he expects it to go away. He says he is negotiating with officials from ECMC to forgive the debt, based on other support it receives from the county. But that seems unlikely, and at least one hospital board member, Sharon Hanson, isn't even sure it would be legal. Robert Gioia, chairman of Great Lakes Health System of Western New York -- the parent of ECMC and Kaleida Health -- says his organization is looking for a global answer to the many issues that intertwine ECMC and the county.

Regardless, Collins took the politician's approach, not the businessman's. His budget -- which he redesigned in a way he said was more honest -- contains a number of qualifiers that plausibly explain what might otherwise be viewed as errors or omissions. He should have taken a similar approach with this significant expense -- or, at least, he should have if he cares about preserving his standing with the public. Ten months into a four-year term is awfully early for a reformer to be sacrificing his credibility.

The flip side, of course, is that Collins has more than three years to show that misleading the public isn't his standard operating procedure. He has time to demonstrate that he is the forthright businessman whom voters chose as county executive last November.

We hope he will, but he has to act promptly. It won't take many more detours from fiscal rectitude for the public to start believing that its white knight is just another politician rigging the game for his benefit.

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