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Protect the office <br> Poloncarz must use all the tools available to maintain independence

Erie County Executive Chris Collins' tactics of destroying anything in his path to achieve his own objectives does a disservice to the public he is sworn to serve. Nowhere has that unfortunate habit been more troubling than in his evisceration of the county comptroller's office. Collins obviously believes it is his right to obliterate the checks and balances that make democracy work.

He is wrong. We hope a court will tell him so.

The comptroller is an independently elected official whose job is to keep a flinty eye on county finances. But his budget is set by the county executive and Legislature. Collins doesn't like Comptroller Mark Poloncarz and he especially doesn't like him monitoring his work. So he sliced into Poloncarz's office in the just-completed budget. Can anyone imagine Gov.-elect Andrew M. Cuomo doing that to State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli?

Collins cut the comptroller's office staff by 36 percent, reducing it to 27 employees, including only two auditors. For that reason, Poloncarz has submitted two applications to the county control board for efficiency grant money to return auditors and cash collection staff. The control board will review the applications at its Dec. 23 meeting, but we're surprised its leaders haven't already spoken out. They should.

That's a start, but it is also important for Poloncarz to go back to court. A previous lawsuit was dismissed as being premature. It's not premature anymore. This point is too fundamental to the functioning of democratic government to allow it to stand unchallenged.

The comptroller's primary obligations are to keep the books, to invest county money, to manage the borrowings and to provide some level of oversight. It's that last function that is the vaguest, but as former county comptroller James Hartman observed, it would be difficult for Poloncarz to fulfill his charter obligation to provide meaningful audit oversight to a $1.5 billion operation with only two people.

Hartman also had only two auditors in the aftermath of the 2004 "red-budget, green-budget" crisis, and said he couldn't do much with that lean a staff. The office needs at least five auditors, he said.

Poloncarz was able to build back up to seven auditors before Collins cut staffing back to two.

In truth, Poloncarz shouldn't have to apply for efficiency grant money or go to the courts for help in properly funding an office charged with fiduciary oversight of county finances. What was needed was for Collins to demonstrate proper respect, not for Poloncarz, but for process and for taxpayers.

The comptroller's office is not about personalities but oversight. Poloncarz may or may not have a chance in a lawsuit, as there is nothing in the county charter that mandates staffing levels. This is about a value judgment of the importance of the comptroller's office.

The control board may be able to rectify the abomination perpetrated upon the comptroller's office -- and the interests of taxpayers -- but that doesn't excuse what has occurred.

Collins' heavy-handed behavior is deplorable, but his habit has been to use whatever arcane tactic he can to get his own way. He has shown his true colors a number of times. The latest involved not only the comptroller's office but the library, arts and culturals. When Collins did not like the actions taken by legislative Democrats, he declared them "null and void." Lawmakers went to court and a judge ruled Collins was out of line.

But it's one thing to be out of line regarding funding decisions that are essentially political. It's another to use the power of the purse to undermine the checks and balances that are among the basic building blocks of representative democracy.

Good business sense and the structure of government demand there be a financial authority -- the comptroller -- to advise the taxpayers on the wisdom of what happens to their tax dollars.

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