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Audit will target abuse <br> Comptroller needs to get to the bottom of hiring policies at Water Authority<br>

Perhaps it's just political, but even if it is, more power to them. Both candidates for Erie County comptroller have said that they will audit the Erie County Water Authority. It's a fine idea.

The problems with the Water Authority are well known and so transparent as to be galling. Primary among them is the fact that it is integral to the "friends and family" hiring program. That is, it is a patronage dumping ground.

The most recent example is the authority's hiring of Rob Poloncarz, brother of Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, as contract monitor. The position was not advertised. No civil service exam has been held. The new contract monitor previously was a chef.

But Poloncarz was only the most notable recent hire. The authority filled 13 other positions with the same wink-and-a-nod process. With The Buffalo News' revelation of those hires, County Comptroller David J. Shenk announced that he plans to examine the Water Authority's hiring practices. He said auditors also will look into purchasing practices, whether the agency complies with the state Public Authorities Law and how its operations compare with other water authorities.

Shenk was appointed to his post this year to fill the vacancy when his predecessor – Mark Poloncarz – was elected county executive.

Meanwhile, Shenk's Republican opponent, Stefan Mychajliw, also announced plans to use the comptroller's auditing function to examine practices at the authority.

It's a great campaign issue for both candidates, and if that's their motivation, fine. It doesn't really matter as long as they follow through with audits that are thorough, probing and fair.

Unfair hiring practices are always a risk with public authorities. Those authorities can be useful entities, but they are like shadow governments: quasi-public, quasi-private but serving a real public need. At the state level, those authorities include the New York Power Authority, which operates the Niagara Power Project; the New York State Thruway Authority; and the New York State Dormitory Authority.

The international Public Bridge Authority operates the Peace Bridge while the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and Erie County Water Authority serve local and regional needs.

The concept is smart, in theory. It allows the state to build projects that are funded on the promise of tolls or fees that users pay. Locally, they help to finance projects that might otherwise be unaffordable and that taxpayers in other parts of the state would resist funding.

But because of their public-private nature, authorities are open to abuse. A classic example is the maneuver by former Gov. Mario Cuomo who, facing a budget crisis, "sold" Attica Prison to the Urban Development Corp. – a public authority whose mission was to provide low-income housing – then leased it back from the authority.

The question here is: How deep does the abuse go at the Erie County Water Authority? That there is abuse is incontrovertible, given the long-standing and continuing practice of political leaders finding jobs for family and friends there.

That is the value of an audit. It's time again to dig into the authority, to find out what past recommendations it has implemented and to examine other practices that may fly in the face of good management and the interests of the authority's rate-payers.