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Collins, Poloncarz pointedly questioned; St. Joe's students come well-prepared

Hours of preparation by St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute students and teachers produced pointed questions Wednesday for the candidates for Erie County executive.

Chris Collins and Mark C. Poloncarz seemed to have fun answering the queries from the 800 students in school gym.

Collins created a buzz when he claimed Poloncarz wanted to be the "county czar," and Poloncarz told the students at one point, "He lied to you."

Students in Ted Lina's Advanced Placement government class researched the issues and came up with questions with three teachers. Still, they made a lot of changes on the fly Thursday morning, student Richard Cappellazzo said.

"A lot of the answers were pretty standard," he said. "A couple of the questions were danced around."

Among the questions for Poloncarz were:

*"You characterize Mr. Collins as a man of wealth and the candidate of Wall Street, while characterizing yourself as a candidate for Main Street. Considering that Mr. Collins, too, is a self-made man, is it fair to represent him as an out-of-touch member of the wealthy elite?"

*"Why should the voters of Erie County support you when members of your own party have been so willing to work with your opponent?"

Poloncarz responded that everyone should work together, and he charged Collins does not want to compromise.

Collins said his opponent wants to "dictate" to libraries and the sheriff how to run their operations, wants to close volunteer fire companies, fire assessors and shut down the five local Industrial Development agencies.

"This man wants to be the county czar," Collins said.

Poloncarz, the county comptroller, said Collins lied.

"I never advocated closing fire departments. I said we need to look and see whether or not we have too many. We do for a community our size. We also have too many assessors. We have over 30 assessing units, which is more than 10 states have. We need to reduce government," Poloncarz said.

Poloncarz commended Collins on his success in the private sector but said that does not necessarily transfer to government.

"At the same time he's giving $30,000 and $50,000 raises to his highest paid political cronies, he's cutting librarians, he's cutting rodent control officers," Poloncarz said, adding that the county has lost jobs and population in recent years.

"One thing Mr. Poloncarz is known for is being a chronic exaggerator," Collins replied. "You just heard him blame me for the worldwide recession."

Questions to Collins included:

*"Why are you maintaining such a low public profile during this campaign. Don't you think the citizens of Erie County deserve a more public campaign for someone seeking such a prominent public office?"

*"How many more suicides [in the Holding Center] must take place before your administration takes this human rights issue seriously?"

The Holding Center recorded its second suicide in six weeks last week.

Collins responded that the county takes suicides in the Holding Center seriously and has procedures in place to try to prevent them.

"Suicide is a tragedy. Suicide occurs in society. Suicide occurs in a jail," he said. "If someone is determined to end their life, they will do it."

Poloncarz said the county has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on unnecessary litigation at the Holding Center.

"For the longest time he stuck his head in the sand and told the federal government and state we're going to ignore you, sue us. Well they did," Poloncarz said.

Collins also said that there is no need for more than two debates, and he is out in the community every day. Thursday afternoon he was scheduled to talk to the Buffalo Rotary Club, he said.

"My opponent and I disagree on almost everything," he said. "You can debate one time or 12 times, we still disagree."

He noted that when he ran for county executive four years ago, there were three debates.

Poloncarz said he attends many public forums that Collins does not.

"I believe he's afraid to answer questions from the public," Poloncarz said. "He doesn't want to talk about his record."

The candidates did agree that the only poll that matters takes place on Election Day, Nov. 8.