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Collins keeps to his conservative course ; Remains undaunted by outside complaints

After 29 months as Erie County executive, Chris Collins has somehow dispensed with nearly all rivals to power. He's buzzing along on his conservative course, blissfully unfazed by outside complaints.

"Yeah, it's been noisy," Collins said recently. "It's been ugly in a couple cases. But I think to some extent I have always said, 'promises made, promises kept.' "

He's not one to change course for concepts like "checks and balances" or "legislative purview."

"Chris Collins gets everything he wants," an adversary formerly in the path of the Collins steamroller once said.

Largely through power politics -- and less through the strength of his ideas -- Collins has changed the County Legislature, the county Industrial Development Agency and the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Meanwhile, the state-appointed control board went soft. Collins signed a complex agreement that charts out Erie County Medical Center's future financial support. He signed pacts with the public-employee unions that view him unfavorably. Two unions ratified their proposed contracts. Two did not.

He's cozy now with the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership, the influential business group that once treated him as an outsider despite his business background. After putting up a fight, he's negotiating an end to the U.S. Justice Department lawsuit against Erie County and its jails, making that litigation less likely to spoil his election year.

Speaking of elections, his main campaign fund will contain about $1.2 million when midyear reports are filed around July 15. That will be a full year before Collins will begin campaigning in earnest for re-election.

Brian J. Lipke, the Gibraltar Industries chairman and chief executive who also headed the Buffalo control board, has known Collins for years and urged him to run for county executive.

"Chris has a very high set of expectations, as he did when he was in the private sector," said Lipke, a donor and steadfast friend to the Collins team. "Sometimes you bump into obstacles because your expectations are so high. He has never been one to back away."

Of course, there's a flip side to Collins' strength.

Is it a democracy when the chief executive rules by fiat?

Dozens of cultural providers -- theaters, galleries, museums -- will not receive their full Legislature-approved outlays this year and might never receive them because Collins figures the county cannot yet afford the extra $1.7 million the Legislature voted to distribute.

Some legal minds think Collins would lose in court, especially since he made exceptions for recipients connected to his political friends. None of the have-not agencies has sued, nor has the Legislature, but after a stormy week last week, Democratic lawmakers are pondering a lawsuit.

Yes, county government ended 2009 with an almost $44 million surplus, but Collins will spend none of it making the array of cultural agencies whole, nor will he restore child care subsidies for the 700 working-poor families in Erie County who lost them largely because of reductions in state aid. Also, he intends to spend just half of the $400,000 the Legislature appropriated for this year's summer youth programs.

As for that $44 million surplus, around $41 million can be traced to stimulus dollars the federal government gave to counties that pay part of their Medicaid programs. Collins wants to hold as much as he can for future needs -- irritating legislators and policy makers who believe more of the stimulus money should be spent stimulating the economy. After all, Collins declared economic development his top priority last year.

"What the county lacks is not reserves but rather sustained economic growth," Rep. Louise M. Slaughter wrote in a letter almost scolding Collins for not releasing the money into the local economy. "The City of Buffalo is the third most impoverished city in the nation, and earlier this year the local jobless rate hit its highest levels since the mid-1980s, underscoring the need to use this surplus to create jobs now."

Collins sent back a response: "While I understand that many in Congress, Albany and the Erie County Legislature have never met a tax they cannot raise or a dollar they cannot spend, those of us who have worked in the private sector understand the value of a dollar and how any increase in taxes kills future job growth."

Meanwhile, Collins wants to shrink county government further by casting off nonmandated county services to the nonprofit agencies willing to administer them. Which also means nonprofit agencies free of County Legislature oversight.

"I think he's doing what he was elected to do. I sense that most people are pretty happy with that," said Legislator Kevin Hardwick of the City of Tonawanda, the Canisius College political science professor who hosted a local radio show about politics before he ran for the Legislature as a Republican last year.

"I think, certainly, the county is fiscally in better shape," Hardwick said. "When we try to undo some of the fiscal gimmicks that were employed in the waning days of the last administration, he's cleaning up the mess."

Other county executives have tried to bend the Legislature to their wills and reshape county government's assorted players, like the Industrial Development Agency. But even by building their power, can a county executive really change the way of life in Erie County?

While styles of leadership vary among county executives, they don't have a huge impact on the quality of life here, said Michael Haselswerdt, also a political science professor at Canisius College.

"I think that the problems of Western New York are bigger than any county-level government can deal with," Haselswerdt said. "We are reliant on whatever happens at the state level and the federal level. The loss of jobs is more of a systemic issue rather than a local issue that we can do too much about."

Collins, in a recent interview, had to be reminded that thousands of people out there dislike his policies. They are not just County Legislature Democrats and their friends. A collection of five women's groups in March said they are pretty much sick of his decisions that "damage the well-being and health of women and children."

Collins has largely forgotten about all that because he has moved on.

"The decisions are made," he said. "We are not revisiting them. They were the right decisions based on our vision and our core values. That bus left the station. I let people picket me, chirp at me, editorialize against me, write letters about me. It doesn't matter."

He picked up speed, moving into speech-making mode.

"Our vision is to make this a world-class community where people want to live, work and play, which means reducing the cost of government," he said. "I believe in small government, personal accountability and service to taxpayers. Which means, I am not going to raise taxes."

In any small gathering that includes Collins, he does virtually all the talking. So the two aides sitting with him rarely joined the conversation, unlike the way aides to former County Executive Joel A. Giambra threw themselves into the chatter when Giambra was interviewed.

Grant Loomis and Christopher M. Grant were with Collins at the start of his campaign, when he would speak to clusters of conservative-minded voters in their parlors. As much as any duo, the two have framed Collins' message and run his interference.

Loomis pens the statements that upbraid Collins' critics, usually Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz or whatever Legislature Democrat is in their cross hairs.

Grant, who has yet to turn 30, plays for Collins the same roles that Deputy Mayor Steve Casey plays for Mayor Byron W. Brown -- protector, problem-solver, enforcer.

Grant enlisted Dennis Vacco, the former U.S. attorney and state attorney general now in private practice, to provide more gravitas to the county negotiating team that faced the Justice Department. And Grant was probably the largest single architect of the Legislature transition.

The Collins cadre last year engineered election defeats for two of his most-disliked lawmakers, clipping off the Democrats' vetoproof majority and rendering the Legislature more irrelevant in Collins' eyes. The Republican bloc then partnered with three legislators from a Democratic faction to oust the Collins-despised Lynn M. Marinelli from the top post and install Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo, as chairwoman.

At one time, Collins and the pro-business Buffalo-Niagara Partnership were cool to each other -- odd since Collins vowed to "run government like a business" and implemented years-old Partnership suggestions to jettison certain county services.

But Collins forged a friendship with Partnership Chairman Jonathan A. Dandes rather than Chief Executive Officer Andrew Rudnick. Now Collins and the Partnership's leaders seem to get along swell.

After his compromise with the the state-appointed control board, the agency softened. Collins granted the control board's wish to take out a long-term loan on the county's behalf. While Collins long swore he would never do it, he figured state leaders were unlikely to dismantle the Fiscal Stability Authority before the bonds expire in 2023.

Simultaneously, the control board accepted his four-year financial plan and eased into "advisory status." Everyone involved will say this was no quid pro quo. Control board Chairman Daniel C. Oliverio effusively praised Collins' leadership, and the Fiscal Stability Authority has not created a problem for him since.

In well-known power plays, Collins took control of the county Industrial Development Agency and installed new leadership at the Buffalo-Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau, the latter of which he starved of county dollars until its leaders complied.

It's not as though no one has taken him on. The Civil Service Employees Association challenged his decision to steer many new hires into part-time status, when they get half the paid time off as full-timer. The CSEA has won before the state Public Employment Relations Board. The Legislature sued him over the 2009 budget and kept the tax rate lower than Collins preferred.

Poloncarz, for a report on the county Ethics Board, took the Collins team to court to get them to turn over the personal financial disclosure forms that dozens of county officials must file each year. Poloncarz is often rumored as a Democratic opponent for Collins next year. They don't get along.

"He's had successes. He has had failures," Poloncarz said of Collins. "I think he would have more successes if he weren't so bullying. Government is compromise. And usually you get things accomplished when you have compromises."

email: mspina@buffnews.com

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