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Comptroller urges candor on bids by Collins' firms for county work

The Erie County comptroller said Thursday that Chris Collins should urge his companies to state their connection to the county executive whenever they bid for a county contract.

That way, Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz said, the county executive might have avoided the Legislature's protests and inquiry into how Volland Electric of Cheektowaga, a company in which Collins owns a minority stake, won a $90,000 contract with county government.

"The bid package should include a statement: 'Chris Collins, the county executive, is an owner of this business,' " Poloncarz said.

"I think it's in his own best interests," he added.

In the case of Volland, the statement could have accompanied the proposed contract through the bureaucracy, with stops at the state-appointed control board and at the Legislature -- which was not in the loop but probably should have been, Poloncarz said.

Poloncarz said his auditors are examining how the contract's specifications were drafted and the bids assessed in awarding Volland the job to repair electric motors as needed for the county sewer system.

Armor Electric of Buffalo, which had provided the service over the last three years, submitted a slightly higher offer and lost the contract, even though its hourly labor rate was cheaper.

Volland Electric held the contract for three years before Armor won it in 2006. But this appears to be Volland's first service contract with county government in the Collins era.

Collins did not respond to The Buffalo News requests for an interview on the matter. But while he told a Buffalo television station he did not even know Volland was bidding for county work, a legislator said that did not jibe with what Collins told him.

Legislator Daniel M. Kozub, D-Hamburg, said Collins called him angrily late Wednesday to accuse Kozub of questioning his integrity when he raised the Volland matter during a committee meeting. When they started talking about the merits of the contract, Collins defended Volland Electric as the better bidder, Kozub said.

"He said, 'Our equipment is better and more modern, and we can get things done and fixed faster. That's where the savings is. Where it could take some companies two hours to get things done, we can get it done in an hour,' " Kozub said, quoting Collins.

Collins aides continued Thursday to dismiss the notion that his team tried to hide the contract by not submitting it to the Legislature for approval. Such contracts, they maintain, do not require legislative consent.

The paperwork, in which Volland's name is rarely mentioned, was sent directly to the financial control board, which reviews any county contract of $50,000 or more.

On its cover page, Deputy County Executive Al Hammonds Jr. seeks "approval of the above-referenced project" without naming Volland.

In fact, the Volland name is never mentioned in a four-page form completed for the control board, nor is Collins' relationship with Volland mentioned in a box asking for "other pertinent information."

But Volland was identified as the winning bidder on accompanying worksheets completed by the county Purchasing Division, which the county executive controls.

When reporters quizzed Poloncarz about his inquiry Thursday, he said the county executive's businesses should not be disqualified from seeking county business. In fact, they might benefit taxpayers if they can drive prices lower, Poloncarz said.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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