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Collins once more stymies Democrats County executive refuses to spend additional $200,000 on youth programs

The Erie County Legislature had budgeted $400,000 this year for summer youth programs serving thousands of children -- an uncommonly large amount to cover an expected shortage from the state.

So far, County Executive Chris Collins plans to spend only $200,000 because he refuses to compensate for cuts in state support. With his stand, he again has angered the Legislature's Democrats, who are sick of seeing their budget actions ignored.

They tried to force his hand this week. Displaying uncommon unity, the nine Democrats hammered through a measure that spreads the additional $200,000 among 27 additional summer programs, many in their districts.

Among the would-be recipients, the Buffalo Urban League and Cradle Beach each would receive $6,000, while Lackawanna Soccer Club Sports would collect $10,000. About $9,000 would go to the Old First Ward Community Association and $10,000 to the Delavan-Grider Community Center.

They were among those bypassed in a review by the Collins-controlled Erie County Youth Bureau.

At this point, they will remain among the have-nots. Christopher M. Grant, Collins' chief of staff, says the county executive will spend the additional $200,000 only if, following custom, the state provides the money.

"This administration's No. 1 priority right now is to cut back on any unnecessary excessive spending," Grant said.

Collins' Youth Bureau selected 26 programs that combine academics and recreation, don't overlap too much with nearby programs, cover the required number of hours and might not operate without county dollars. Most of the spending will go into Buffalo.

The African American Cultural Center will receive $10,000, the most allowed. So will Schiller Park Community Services, Seneca Street Community Development Corp., West Side Community Services and the Buffalo Museum of Science. Boys & Girls Clubs in Buffalo, East Aurora and the Northtowns will receive $7,500 each.

This standoff resembles the one over county aid to theaters, galleries, museums and other cultural agencies. Collins refuses to spend the entire amount allocated by the Legislature until he's convinced the government can afford it. Similarly, he has refused to give Erie Community College $208,000 the Legislature appropriated.

This time, Democratic lawmakers are discussing a possible lawsuit, alleging Collins illegally is failing to follow a legally adopted budget.

"It seems like he prefers to run county government like a lawsuit, rather than run county government like a business," said Majority Leader Maria R. Whyte, D-Buffalo.

"I believe that this administration's general philosophy is: 'If you don't like what we do, then sue me,' " she added.

In a larger move, the Democrats tried to allocate about $13 million from last year's surplus. They funded road projects and improvements at county buildings, including masonry work at the historic Erie Community College downtown campus. They allowed the placement of security cameras in parks and upgrades at Wendt and Bennett beaches. They also devoted money to job-training and economic development efforts.

Last year's huge surplus -- almost $44 million -- was made possible largely by a category of federal stimulus dollars. The Democrats argue that Collins should release more of those millions into the local economy to create jobs.

The Democrats also allocated money to ensure that dozens of cultural organizations receive their Legislature-approved amounts. They did not restore money for child care subsidies for working poor families, reasoning that such a constant expense should not be covered by nonrecurring revenue.

Like the summer-program spending, the allocations of surplus dollars passed 9-6 on a party-line vote. The Collins team argues that spending the year-end surplus requires 10 votes. Collins, therefore, will declare the measure null and void; he will also veto the new spending details, said Grant, his chief of staff.

The Legislature's nine Democrats rarely unite. Three of them -- Christina W. Bove of West Seneca and Timothy M. Kennedy and Barbara Miller-Williams, both of Buffalo -- have teamed with the six lawmakers in the Collins-friendly Republican caucus on several matters this year. But on several procedural votes Thursday, the three swung away from Collins.

The six lawmakers in the Republican bloc held fast, even after Democrats tried to fund a summer youth program for the Boys & Girls Club of Orchard Park, in the district of Minority Leader John J. Mills, R-Orchard Park.

"Let the word go forth that pork-barrel politics is alive and well in Erie County," Legislator Kevin R. Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda, said about the doubling of summer-program grants.

Democrats bristled at that. Legislator Daniel M. Kozub of Hamburg asked why summer program decisions look like ham up on the top floor of the Rath County Office Building, but pork when they reach County Hall across the street, where the Legislature meets.

As for the surplus, the Republicans said Collins wants to hold that money for rainy days certain to come, to blunt the need for any tax increase.

"If we approve this, we take our first steps down the road to fiscal disaster," said Legislator Raymond W. Walter, R-Amherst.

"Just because they say there is going to be a tax increase doesn't make it so," Whyte countered.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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