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Collins touts achievements in State of the County speech

Chris Collins strummed conservative refrains Wednesday during an annual speech to herald his work over the past year and drive home his priorities as an Erie County executive who happens to be vaulting into campaign mode.

He delivered his fourth State of the County address to a friendly audience of about 200 people -- mostly county appointees, elected leaders and government stakeholders. They interrupted him with applause at least 16 times and gave him a standing ovation at the end.

His 34-minute speech was nonconfrontational, except when he challenged the Legislature to renew a program that lets not-for-profits expand with government-arranged, tax-exempt financing.

Collins hit on these topics in his election-year speech:

*Charter schools: Erie County government has no involvement in charter schools. But Collins chose the South Buffalo Charter School as this year's State of the County venue to trumpet the benefits of charter schools and stress that he makes decisions with younger generations in mind.

"Locally, despite per-pupil spending that trumps most private-school tuition, less than 60 percent of students graduate from City of Buffalo high schools," he said.

"These education problems are complicated, and I don't pretend to have all the answers. But I do know that charter schools are working," he said.

*Paying up front: When the books are closed on 2010, Collins will be sitting on a reserve fund of more than $70 million, about $50 million of which can be touched only in dire circumstances.

To avoid interest expenses, he would use at least $19 million of the reserve to pay for some large-scale construction projects up front, rather than use the customary method to borrow the money and repay it over years or decades.

He said he intends to pay cash for the county's $11.5 million contribution to Erie County Medical Center's new nursing home at its Grider Street campus. He also repeated that he wants to pay cash for the county's $7.5 million share for a new academic building at the Erie Community College North campus in Amherst. He said he would like to pay cash for other county improvements.

Collins has been banking his year-end surplus dollars even though they were made possible by the federal stimulus program. County lawmakers and others in the community criticized him for hoarding the millions and argued that he should spend the money on public works projects that stimulate the economy -- something he says the county is now doing.

*Medicaid: "I am not the first county executive to stand before a group and lament about New York's Medicaid program and how it has become the financial albatross around all our necks," Collins said. "And sadly, I probably won't be the last."

Collins has renewed a plea to let each New York county determine which extra Medicaid services -- those not mandated by the federal government -- to offer within their borders. Legislation that might allow the switch has been stalled in Albany since before Collins became county executive. Further, the legislation would only let New York request a waiver from the federal requirement that Medicaid offerings be uniform within each state.

*Economic development: Collins was introduced by the Canadian consul general, Marta Moszczenska, to drive home his point that Western New York can do more to benefit from its border with Canada. He mentioned the arrival of ElectroSonic, a Canadian electronics distributor that opened a Town of Tonawanda facility.

He said other local companies helped by Erie County Industrial Development Agency financing included ValueCentric, which serves the pharmaceutical industry from its center in Orchard Park, and Bubbles Q Sauce, a maker of barbecue sauce in South Buffalo.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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