Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and challenger Lynne Dixon held back on fireworks until the end of their debate Wednesday evening in the auditorium of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, which was broadcast live on WIVB -TV, Channel 4, and co-sponsored by the Amherst Chamber of Commerce.
“If he has such a strong record,” Dixon said in her closing statement, “why is he running negative ads on me?”
Moments earlier, she scored his campaign for replacing a Purple Heart recipient in a photo of her with the image of disgraced Rep. Chris Collins, which she called “reprehensible.”
For his part, Poloncarz criticized Dixon for her allegiance to Collins when he was county executive – accusing her of sustaining his vetoes of budget amendments that she had originally proposed.
He also questioned her independence as an Independence Party candidate, citing members of her campaign staff with ties to Collins and County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw.
Dixon pointed out that, as a county legislator, she represents a district that is overwhelmingly Democratic.
“I vote the district, what the district expects of me,” she said. “I don’t listen to an echo chamber of a few people.”
The candidates volleyed more politely on meat-and-potato issues such as road repairs, taxes and what to do with the county’s budget surplus, as well as some more controversial matters.
Dixon sharply served up critiques on everything from Poloncarz’s book about the negotiations for the Buffalo Bills stadium lease to the county’s high sales tax rate.
Poloncarz steadily batted them down by defending his record. The lease kept the Bills from moving away, he noted. Reducing the sales tax, he observed, would reduce the share that cities, town, villages and districts receive from it and threaten the county’s good credit rating.
The debate’s lead-off question on taxes set the tone.
Dixon pointed out that tax bills have gone up 24% since Poloncarz took office and, if next year’s proposed budget “is approved as is, they will go up another 5%.”
Poloncarz contended that the tax rate for the new budget will go down from $4.84 per $1,000 assessed valuation to $4.72, but conceded that tax bills will be higher because assessments are rising.
“We don’t control assessments on businesses and homes,” he said, noting that they are set by the cities and towns.
Questions from a panel of WIVB newscasters and viewers also brought up pay raises for county officials, redirecting the county’s bed tax to promote economic development, the proposed asphalt plant in Hamburg and the troubled Tesla factory in Buffalo.
On a number of issues, though, there seemed to be underlying agreement.
When Dixon criticized how the dismissal of former Social Services Commissioner Al Dirschberger was handled after he was accused of rape by a subordinate, Poloncarz contended that he acted quickly and that an outside law firm found no irregularities or cover-ups.
Then they both declared that the county should strictly enforce a no-tolerance policy on sexual harassment.
Same with grocery bags. They both stated opposition to a proposed fee for paper grocery bags after the statewide ban on plastic bags goes into effect next year.
Dixon said that the county should at least provide a waiver for people using government food benefits. Poloncarz noted that counties have the option of imposing or not imposing the fee and that he would oppose it.