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Poloncarz knows ins and outs of County Hall; Years as comptroller give him head start

When he's sworn in Sunday, Mark C. Poloncarz will bring something to the county executive's office that few of his predecessors have had: an insider's knowledge.

For six years as county comptroller, he has worked in the Rath County Office Building, overseen audits of everything from road projects to sewer districts and operated a tip line that sought to shake out the dirty secrets of county government.

Now, as the 44-year-old Democrat prepares to take office, he is using his insider view to examine county departments and exert his own influence on decisions.

So far, he's not pleased with what he sees.

"We knew what was in the budget," said Poloncarz, who last week was reading through a thick stack of memos from top administrators. "We always knew there were problems. But when you read a memo from the commissioner or deputy commissioner saying, 'yeah, we've got serious problems,' and of course for the longest time they were saying 'everything's OK,' then you knew they were covering for the last few years."

Poloncarz, the first county comptroller to win the county executive's seat in its 51-year history, will take the oath of office on Sunday, replacing Republican Chris Collins.

But he's already been brought in on several key decisions as the Collins administration wraps up.

He worked with the Legislature to carve $5 million out of Collins' 2012 budget so funding for arts and cultural programs, rat control and social services jobs could be restored. He was part of a deal to reduce a request from Collins to give $6 million to the Buffalo Zoo, instead borrowing $3 million for its polar bear habitat. And in recent weeks he sought to borrow -- rather than pay cash as Collins wanted -- for a $7 million legal settlement the county must pay.

"Most of the commissioners have been working with us in the transition," Poloncarz said. "They provide us with transition memos or let us know what's happening or get us involved in decisions that otherwise they would never have brought the Comptroller's Office in."

Collins, by stepping out of the way in the final weeks of the budget process, helped Poloncarz shape a sliver of next year's spending. But those decisions also ignited a new round of critical remarks between the two reminiscent of the campaign trail.

Collins, in a recent interview with The Buffalo News, criticized Poloncarz for what he viewed as irresponsible spending and inappropriate borrowing led by the incoming county executive.

Poloncarz called that a "cheap shot."

"I find it interesting that he's saying that because this budget is actually the same dollar figure as his," said Poloncarz, who dipped into budget lines he thought were overfunded to offset the changes he made. "He had the ability to veto if he really felt that it was irresponsible, and he didn't."

>Responds to Collins

Poloncarz took his own political jabs at Collins for saying the county would have been on "cruise control" had he been re-elected because of all his administration had fixed.

"I don't know what speed he would have been going at," Poloncarz said, "but it's quite apparent from what I'm hearing from the commissioners and the department heads today that they were going to be dealing with some significant problems going forward, not only with being short-staffed, but with retirements."

Poloncarz comes into office with a better financial picture than when Collins took office four years ago. Collins, with the help of stimulus funds, built up a surplus and reduced the county's debt.

He also cut hundreds of jobs from the county's payroll -- a fact that worries Poloncarz.

Poloncarz, an attorney who worked with the law firm Kavinoky Cook before running for comptroller, will face other challenges in his first year in office. Seven union contracts will be expired the day he takes office, including the collective bargaining agreement for the county's largest public-sector union.

He deflects suggestions by Collins and others that union contributions to his campaign will impact those discussions.

"I'm not going to give away the keys to the candy store to the unions, and I don't think they're expecting that either," Poloncarz said. "They just want a fundamental fairness when it comes to negotiations that I believe they never felt they received in the current administration."

>Faces Bills lease deal

Poloncarz will also have to deal with the Buffalo Bills over the lease agreement for Ralph Wilson Stadium. He says it's important for the county to have a "good working relationship" with the Bills and the state's Empire State Development Corp. as those negotiations begin, and said he's already talked with "all parties" involved.

He won't reveal additional details, and said he won't "negotiate in public."

"No matter what," he said, "I'm going to be working hard to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to attend Bills games in the future in Buffalo."

Poloncarz has also been tight-lipped about who he is considering for top positions within his administration.

He has revealed only the appointment of Richard M. Tobe as deputy county executive and spent last week interviewing candidates along with his transition team. He expects to make more announcements soon.

Meanwhile, his transition team has hit a few bumps. One member, Bernard Tolbert, resigned after it was revealed he was being sued by a former colleague at the National Basketball Association and had previously settled a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Another transition team member who headed the public works search committee, Kenneth Peterson, once led a company that in 2006 was barred by the state Department of Labor from bidding on public projects.

Michael Joseph, head of the transition team, issued a statement late last week saying the team was not aware of the information until Thursday and that the committee Peterson led had already completed its work.

"Mr. Peterson was one individual on a larger subcommittee of seven persons which made unanimous recommendations for positions in the county's Department of Public Works," Joseph said.

>Called level-headed

Those who have worked with Poloncarz in the past describe his style as level-headed with a steady approach toward his goals.

"He is very cool and calm about dealing with problems, which is always a good thing," said Laurence K. Rubin, who was county attorney during Poloncarz's first years in office.

As comptroller, Poloncarz kept an open-door policy with his staff.

"He's always impressed me as a person who has a very strong passion for his community," said James Eagan, who headed Poloncarz's campaign fundraising efforts.

This week, Poloncarz will pack up his belongings in the comptroller's office and hopes to begin moving into the county executive suite by Friday.

Sometime in the spring, he said, he'll take a short vacation, possibly to Florida, where his parents have a winter home. He also hopes to continue as an assistant hockey coach and get in a round or two of golf as county executive.

Beyond that, he said, his focus is on the job.

"It's been very busy," Poloncarz said. "It's been busier in this period after the election than truthfully during the election, and this election was an exceptionally busy election."

>Pledges to work hard

On Sunday, after he's sworn in, he plans to open the county executive's office to the public for tours.

"I'm going to do the best that I can," Poloncarz said. "I'm not going to sit here and have these grand pronouncements that on Day One everything changes or on Day Two it's now the best it's ever been. That's not going to happen. We're just going to work as hard as we can to try to deliver the services not only as efficiently as possible, but in a manner that the public needs and wants."