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Erie County clerk threatens to sue county executive over money matter

Erie County Clerk Michael "Mickey" Kearns is threatening to sue County Executive Mark Poloncarz, saying Poloncarz has overstepped his authority by refusing to allocate money that the County Legislature set aside for the Clerk's Office last year. The county executive has refused to release $200,000 for an abandoned homes initiative, calling the program pushed by Kearns redundant and unnecessary.

Kearns said Poloncarz is wrong and that it's not his call to make anyway.

"I am independently elected," said Kearns, who has retained a lawyer over the matter. "I’m not a department of the County Executive’s Office."

Kearns and Poloncarz have disagreed before about what money the Clerk's Office is entitled to receive and spend. The last time they disagreed, the County Legislature and Comptroller's Office helped settle the matter in July by agreeing to provide $500,000 to the Clerk's Office to spend on upgrades and technology improvements.

Since Kearns didn't spend all that money last year, he asked to carry over the balance. But Budget Director Robert Keating objected in January, saying that the county needed to reconcile its books for 2018 first.

Keating sent a letter to legislators stating, "I assure the members of the Legislature we are amenable to working with the County Clerk's Office to carry forward needed available funding for critical unbudgeted 2019 needs."

Kearns said he took that to mean the unspent money eventually would be released. He submitted his requests to spend the balance of $365,000 in five areas, including records scanning and software upgrades.

But the biggest earmark was $200,000 to hire a contractor to provide help suburban communities identify and track properties in foreclosure. Many of these properties remain neglected and vacant for years under bank ownership, spawning the term "zombie homes." When Kearns gave his spending list to the county budget office, Keating responded that county would support money for office upgrades, but not the zombie home proposal.

"The county executive can’t pick and choose," Kearns said.

The County Clerk's Office generated $8 million in surplus revenue last year, $1 million more than was budgeted for 2018, he said. That includes nearly $15 million in property transfer taxes that Poloncarz is spending to fix county roads. Given that, Kearns said it's wrong for Poloncarz to attempt to "micromanage" how the clerk prioritizes money that has already received prior Legislature approval.

A Poloncarz spokesman said Kearns has no legal right to money that he did not spend or set aside last year.

"If money isn't spent by the end of the year, it automatically rolls into the general fund and is not allocated for any purpose, unless proposed by the county executive and approved by the Legislature, so the clerk can't propose it," said Peter Anderson.

Moreover, he said, the zombie homes program Kearns wants to fund overlaps with work already done by the Land Bank, Anderson said. The Land Bank spends millions on its mission of revitalizing communities by acquiring, improving and selling distressed, vacant and abandoned properties, he said.

Kearns said he respects the work of the Land Bank, but it does not provide the kind of technical support that Kearns wants to provide suburban communities that are ineligible for other state grants. Banks began the foreclosure process on more than 1,000 Erie County properties last year and thousands more property owners are at least 90 days behind on mortgage payments, he said.

He added that he hopes county legislators will intervene and make further legal action unnecessary.

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