This is a more difficult endorsement than we would have expected. You could hardly find two more different, legitimate candidates for Erie County executive than Republican incumbent Chris Collins and his Democratic challenger, Comptroller Mark Poloncarz.
They are poles apart in their ideas and approaches to government, yet there are frankly enough elements in each candidate's platform to wish you could meld Collins' razor-sharp fiscal discipline with Poloncarz's feel for the social elements that help to define and undergird this community.
Alas, it cannot happen and so, with some misgivings, we tilt toward Poloncarz. Here's why. Collins, plainly, would continue on his fiscal path, and Poloncarz has made clear his disinclination to raise taxes. To those who worry that the comptroller will be beholden to the unions who love electing Democratic candidates who do their bidding, we offer two words of reassurance: tax cap. Even if Poloncarz wanted to, he could raise the tax levy no more than 2 percent without a public vote that garners the approval of 60 percent of voters. So while Poloncarz could theoretically raise taxes by 8 percent over four years, we doubt that three-fifths of the public would go along with raising taxes any more than that. That's a good insurance policy against business as usual.
Conversely, while Poloncarz has a good feel for the county's non-economic needs, Collins, we believe, never will. There is no insurance policy against unadvised cuts to libraries, for example.
The crisis in the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library was brought on solely by Collins and his decision to slash funding. He backtracked under pressure, but we will still likely be left with a new taxing district to support the library system. A new taxing district and all the government that goes with it is simply not acceptable. And we're surprised that Collins would approve it, given his anti-tax stands.
The change may offer some welcome stability to the library, but the funding cuts that precipitated this crisis were not needed. It was a revelatory lapse in judgment that we suspect would be repeated in other ways that voters would disapprove. Against a lesser candidate, Collins' other strengths might well carry the day, but in Poloncarz -- a man who also understands finances -- we believe voters have a candidate who will protect, rather than undermine, the county's social and cultural assets.
Both candidates have other weaknesses. Collins portrays his months-long dispute with the Justice Department as a success that saved taxpayers "untold amounts of money" through his refusal to cave into what he says would have been costly changes to the jail. But U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., who led the federal government's team, rejects that assertion. The matter could have been settled years earlier, he said, without litigation. Instead, county and federal taxpayers were socked with huge and unnecessary legal costs. Collins is litigious and, frankly, high-handed by nature, and Hochul had little reason to dispute Collins if Collins was correct.
Poloncarz, meanwhile, politicized the comptroller's office in ways that were unhelpful to its mission. Always positioning himself for this campaign, taxpayers were forced to wonder which of his criticisms of Collins were based on the numbers and which were based on his own political ambitions. Both could be true, of course, but a comptroller needs to be -- and to be perceived as -- non-partisan. What that tells us is that Poloncarz wants so badly to be county executive that he may have been willing to take actions that were not in the best interests of his office or of taxpayers.
Collins performed no better in his financial assault on the comptroller's office, defunding it in a naked attempt to weaken essential independent oversight of county government and, to be sure, to stick it to a political opponent. Neither goal was in the interests of the people who pay the salaries of these officials.
There are times when the choice between candidates is so close that it is difficult to make an endorsement. This is one of those times. But we firmly believe that it is a newspaper's duty to share the benefit of a large research and news staff with the community for its consideration.
No candidate is perfect, of course, and both these men have attributes that have served taxpayers well. We admire much of what Collins has accomplished, but we'd like a county executive who strikes a sensible balance between the hard financial facts of life and the need to nurture the county's civic life. On that test, give the edge to Poloncarz.