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Doubt raised on pact given to firm with Collins tie Legislature bypassed in Volland motor deal

For three straight years, Armor Electric Motor Repair on Elk Street fixed motors for Erie County sewer districts.

The contract will now go to a firm held in part by County Executive Chris Collins.

Volland Electric Equipment of Cheektowaga, where Collins announced his candidacy in 2007 and delivered a televised speech this year, has snared the up to $90,000 contract to fix thousands of sewer system motors as the need arises.

Armor Electric's owner is not pleased. Nor are Collins' many critics in the County Legislature.

The Collins team had bypassed the Legislature and quietly asked the state-appointed control financial board to accept Volland's low bid, with no mention of Collins' stake in the company.

The control board's executive director, Kenneth J. Vetter, found it odd that the contract had not first gone to the Legislature for approval, so he contacted the Legislature's staff. That was the first the staff had heard about it.

"I think there is an ethics issue here," said Legislator Daniel M. Kozub, D-Hamburg, chairman of the committee that handles sewer district matters. "And there is an issue that this should have come before the Legislature before it went to the control board."

"I'm insulted that he keeps circumventing this legislative body," said Legislator Michele M. Iannello, D-Kenmore.

Those two lawmakers and other Democrats on the Legislature voiced similar complaints last week, when they learned Collins would not seek Legislature approval for the Albany lobbyist he hired for $5,000 a month.

The county's Purchasing Department, which is controlled by the county executive, had given Armor Electric one-year extensions on the contract that originated in 2006. By law, the contract had to be bid again.

Four sets of bids were received, but the real contest was between Armor and Volland.

Armor's bid came in about 1 percent too high.

"Obviously, I lost the bid, and I wanted the bid," said Armor owner Thomas Pawlak. "But I just don't think the competition should be the county executive.

"I guess there is nothing illegal in him obtaining this contract, and I just find that wild."

Volland Electric has done business with county government before. It held the motor repair contract for the three years before Armor Electric secured it in 2006.

But this appears to be Volland's first annual service contract in the Collins era and the first known contract held by a Collins company while he serves as county executive.

Before running for office, Collins was an investor in ailing companies. He said he invested in 22 distressed firms and combined them into the 10 now in his portfolio.

On the campaign trail, Collins said he would turn the management of all of them over to their top officers. He followed his rule, for the most part.

In one better-known exception, Collins continues to serve as one of four directors for Virionyx, a biopharmaceutical company in New Zealand. Collins said he remained an active director because the U.S. investors expect him to look out for their interests.

Collins spokesman Grant Loomis said he holds a minority stake in Volland Electric and broke off day-to-day involvement in the company when he took office.

"Volland Electric has successfully bid on county work -- on and off -- since the 1940s," Loomis said. "As one of the few remaining electric motor repair shops in Western New York, Volland Electric does business with both the public and private sectors. This contract represents less than 1 percent of Volland Electric's total annual business."

Collins aides say the contract and many others secured by the Purchasing Division don't go before the Legislature because a section of New York's General Municipal Law says they don't have to. But for years, the Legislature has cited the Erie County Administrative Code in asserting the right to review contracts worth $10,000 or more, and it does so with dozens -- if not hundreds -- of them each year.

County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz, whose auditors intend to examine the bids, said the deal should have gone before county lawmakers. Vetter, meanwhile, said the control board will want to know why it didn't.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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